W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Anniversaries’ Category

In remarkable reunion, descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon gather at Newseum events

In Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes, Year studies on November 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm

In what likely was an unprecedented public gathering, programs yesterday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., brought together several descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote a letter to the old New York Sun that inspired American journalism’s best-known and most-reprinted editorial.

Is There_NYSunThe remarkable reunion included Virginia’s only grandson, two granddaughters, two great-grandsons, and a great-great granddaughter, who is 8-years-old. Her name is Mehren O’Hanlon Blair, and she recited Virginia’s letter at the central, holiday-themed event of what the Newseum called “Yes, Virginia, Family Day.”

Mehren was followed by one of the great-grandsons, Nick Hromalik, who read the famous editorial, which appeared in the Sun as a reply to Virginia’s letter that implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Both the letter and editorial were published on September 21, 1897, beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial’s most familiar and most-quoted passage is: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

At a panel program that preceded the readings, Hromalik and Jim Temple, who is Virginia’s grandson, spoke about the editorial’s  significance and described how it has left lasting impressions on their families. (I moderated the panel discussion; in the audience were two of Temple’s sisters — granddaughters of Virginia O’Hanlon — as well as another great-grandson.)

Temple recalled how Virginia gladly accepted invitations to speak about the editorial, and would take no money to do so. He said he has followed that practice, as have other descendants of Virginia, who died in upstate New York in 1971 at 81-years-old.

Temple also said he remembered his grandmother was a gifted and imaginative storyteller. She also was an accomplished woman, earning advanced degrees and working more than 40 years as a teacher or principal in the New York school system. Virginia also was essentially a single mother; her husband left her when her only child — Temple’s mother — was just an infant.

Virginia’s letter to the Sun and the newspaper’s reply — written by Francis P. Church, who died in 1906 — have exerted an appeal across generations that is as astounding as it is undying. In my book about 1897, The Year That Defined American Journalism, I characterized the editorial as “a lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.”

It is, moreover, a cheering and reaffirming commentary, one without villains or sinister elements. The editorial also is a searching intellectual discussion that nonetheless is largely understandable to 8-year-olds, as Temple pointed out. (It also has been a way for generations of parents to address skepticism of their children about Santa Claus: They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about Santa’s existence.)

Temple politely took issue with television depictions of the story of Virginia’s letter to the Sun. He said the representations were not entirely accurate .

He may have been too polite.

Temple_Hromalik

Nick Hromalik, left, and Jim Temple (Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie )

The most recent such depiction, an animated TV program released in 2009 and shown on CBS during every holiday season since then, succeeds in distorting all major elements of the back story of the editorial. Notably, Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed girl obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and unrelievedly disagreeable.

Neither portrayal, as I have pointed out, is very convincing. Neither is very accurate.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Five years on: The best of Media Myth Alert, Part II

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on October 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Media Myth Alert revisits its top-ever posts today in observing its fifth anniversary.

The blog went live October 31, 2009, and its objective was, and remains, twofold: Calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out in 2010.

This is the second of a two-part review of the 10 top posts published at Media Myth Alert, home over the years to more than 640 essays and commentaries. The top posts shared these elements: All were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all represented disclosures exclusive to Media Myth Alert.

■ Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19, 2011): It is sometimes said, erroneously, that bra-burning “never happened,”  that such reports were little more than hostile exaggerations by journalists.

Toronto bra burning_1979

Toronto, March 1979

Bra-burning never occurred?

Not quite.

Credible, first-hand accounts are cited in Getting It Wrong that bras and other items were set afire, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American pageant. And in Toronto in March 1979, a demonstration was capped by a bra-burning, intended as a way to attract media attention. A photograph of the Toronto bra-burning is at right.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February 2011 with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper. I had doubts about its authenticity, given the periodic claims about no bras ever having been burned at a feminist protest.

The Toronto image, I thought at first, might have been faked — or unethically altered somehow.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said that “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police. (The report said that of 337 rapes investigated, 140 were “unprovoked.” The report also said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.)

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-aware and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Toronto newspapers the next day reported on the protest — but did not mention the bra-burning.

Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in June 2014, Rachel Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim, made while revisiting at some length the hero-warrior tale about Lynch, an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

PFC Lynch: Fired not a shot

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and declared that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003. Lynch suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee in Nasiriyah. She was taken prisoner by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on the hero-warrior story — which was wrong in its important details — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

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

None of that vital context was acknowledged by Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case on June 3, 2014.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary was inspired by controversy surrounding the release a few days before of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out on her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was additionally quoted as saying.

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.

Thorp, then a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing — he was following. He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s story already in circulation and quickly gaining international attention.

I wrote in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that “it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story.” But Maddow ignored the Post’s exclusive role in pushing the botched Lynch story into the public domain.

The Post did so by relying on sources it has never disclosed.

It ought to.

Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch? (posted April 27, 2012): The Washington Post’s Watergate content from the 1970s is freely available and readily accessible online.

But try finding online the Post’s famously wrong reporting about Jessica Lynch’s derring-do in Iraq, notably the electrifying front-page report that appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

Lynch_headline_PostThat story — which said Lynch had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner — was in error in all important details. You won’t find it online at any Washington Post site. (The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Nor will you find freely available online the scathing reviews of the Lynch story published by the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, in April and June 2003.

All of which suggests digital scrubbing of embarrassing content — conduct of the sort the Post criticized in 2012, in noting that Vogue magazine expunged the online version of a fawning profile of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Post at that time said Vogue had taken “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization” and had committed “a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

But had the Post not committed a similar “violation” in excising the digital reminders of the embarrassing Lynch case, a dramatic story that it had thoroughly and exclusively botched?

Rather looks like it.

I asked the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about the apparent digital scrubbing of the Lynch content.

Pexton took weeks to reply, finally stating in an email that he had found “nothing nefarious about this.” He said the Post since 2003 “has gone through several changes of content management systems,” by which articles are posted online.

He noted that the “fighting to the death” story about Lynch and related content are available in the Post’s fee-based archive.

But why not make the “fighting to the death” story freely available? Why not remove the fee to allow access to a singularly memorable article of the Iraq War, a mistaken report that made Jessica Lynch something of a celebrity and gave rise to persistent and misguided claims and suspicions that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale and somehow fed it to the Post?

“Restoring the digital version of the article of April 3, 2003, would represent a contribution to the record about the case of Jessica Lynch, which the Post is solely responsible for having placed in the public domain,” I wrote in an email to Pexton.

He never replied before leaving the position in 2013, when his two-year term as ombudsman expired. He was not replaced.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4, 2012): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency in 2012 prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign memorable for an astonishingly clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most scathing putdowns in American political history.

But my research found that the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

The gaffe was committed in late August 1967 by George Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In an interview with a Detroit television reporter, Romney referred to a visit he had made to South Vietnam in 1965 and said:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested gullibility, muddled thinking, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His run for the presidency never righted itself; he quit the race at the end of February 1968.

A witty putdown attributed to Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy ensured that Romney’s gaffe would remain unforgettable. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, all Romney needed was a “light rinse.”

So incisive was McCarthy’s quip that it is said to have “essentially finished Romney” as a candidate for president.

But unclear is where, when, and even whether McCarthy made the “light rinse” comment.

A search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward. (The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.)

It seems improbable that American journalists in 1967 or 1968 would have failed to report a retort as deft and delicious as McCarthy’s.

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 claims.

American Melodrama, a hefty book published in 1969, described McCarthy’s remark as off-hand and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say where McCarthy made the comment, when, or specifically to whom.

Such vagueness invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. It also sounds a bit too perfect — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13, 2013):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post has moments of sheer arrogance.

This was apparent in late summer 2013, when the newspaper refused to acknowledge and correct an inarguably erroneous reference to Richard Nixon’s supposed “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The wrong-headed reference to Nixon’s “secret plan” was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

The Post’s obit of Thomas

The Post’s obituary was glowing and, as if to suggest Thomas’s impressive assertiveness, claimed that she once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

Trouble is, there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question, point-blank or otherwise.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. That’s probably what the obituary writer had in mind.

But Thomas had asked about Nixon’s peace plan, not a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error in the obituary had broader dimension, in that it suggested an embrace of the persistent notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 touting a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House on a “secret plan.” The belief that he did circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Patricia Sullivan, said as much, telling me in response to an email query:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of Douglas Feaver, who had been designated the Post’s reader representative, a sort of ombudsman-lite position set up months after Pexton’s departure.

I noted to Feaver that if the Post could identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if the newspaper could back up the claim in its obituary, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing if modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, then, I wrote, a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than  two weeks to reply to my query, and when he did, he absolved the Post of error. “I see nothing here that deserves a correction,” he wrote.

How obtuse.

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary about Thomas, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

Sure: Quickly and completely. Just as it did in its mistaken reference to Nixon’s “secret plan.”

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Marking five years: The best of Media Myth Alert

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Scandal, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 31, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Media Myth Alert today marks its fifth anniversary — an occasion fitting to revisit the top posts since the blog went live on October 31, 2009, with the objectives of calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Here are the top five of the more than 640 posts at Media Myth Alert. (A separate post today will revisit five other top items posted at Media Myth Alert.)

The top posts all were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all were represented disclosures found only at Media Myth Alert.

Krakauer quietly retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11, 2011): This post disclosed the walk-back by author Jon Krakauer from claims in his 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003.

Krakauer book coverThose claims were unattributed in the book — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory.

It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve pointed out that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the botched story about Lynch has allowed for the emergence not only of bogus allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a tenacious false narrative that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq in the first days of the Iraq War.

Walters was taken prisoner by Iraqi irregulars, and shot and killed.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3, 2012): The “napalm girl” photograph was one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — and remains a source of media myth.

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning image (AP)

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press on June 8, 1972, and showed terror-stricken Vietnamese children running from an errant aerial napalm attack. The central figure of the image was a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming from her burns.

So powerful was the photograph that it is sometimes said — erroneously — that it hastened an end to the war. Another myth is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. aircraft, a version repeated by the New York Times in May 2012, in an obituary of an Associated Press photo editor, Horst Faas.

The Times’ obituary claimed that the “napalm girl” photograph showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack, and I pointed this out in an email to the Times. I noted that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

An editor for the Times, Peter Keepnews, replied, in what clearly was a contorted attempt to avoid publishing a correction:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

Of course the aircraft’s manufacturer was not at all relevant as to who carried out the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former senior Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted for weeks before publishing an obscure sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a muddled and begrudging acknowledgement of error — hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, who had asserted in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29, 2013): The first-ever post at Media Myth Alert was a brief item about Orson Welles’ clever and famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938. Welles’ show, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, supposedly was so terrifying that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

That’s a media myth, one that circulates every year, at the approach of Halloween.

Welles_monument

Orson Welles

In 2013, at the 75th anniversary of Welles’ program, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds in a much-anticipated “American Experience” documentary that turned out to be quite a disappointment. PBS managed not only to make The War of the Worlds seem snoozy and tedious; it missed the opportunity to revisit the well-known but much-misunderstood radio program in fresh and revealing ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.”

The PBS program failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

And it failed to consider the growing body of scholarship which has impugned the conventional wisdom and has found that The War of the Worlds program sowed neither chaos nor widespread alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of Welles, the program’s 23-year-old star.

My critique was endorsed by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18, 2011): Few media myths are as enduring as the hero-journalist trope about of Watergate. It holds that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post — guided by Woodward’s clandestine source, code-named “Deep Throat” — exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

It’s an easy-to-remember tale that cuts through the considerable complexity of Watergate and, as such, has become the dominant narrative of the scandal.

But it’s a history-lite version of Watergate, a media-centric version that the Post itself has mostly eschewed and dismissed over the years. (Woodward once put it this way: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Watergate marker_cropped

Marker with the error

A measure of how engrained Watergate’s dominant narrative has become can be seen in the historical marker that went up in August 2011 outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Woodward conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his “Deep Throat” source.

The marker, as I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

That’s not so.

Such obstruction-of-justice evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did.

But Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) did not share it with Woodward.

The “Deep Throat” garage is to be razed to permit the construction of two commercial and residential towers, the Post reported in June 2014. Interestingly, the Post’s article about the planned demolition repeated nearly verbatim the key portion of the marker’s description, stating:

“Felt … provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which is still wrong, even if printed in the newspaper.

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17, 2011): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University used to feature a quotation attributed to Murrow — a quotation that was only half-true.

Soon after I asked the dean about the provenance of the suspicious quotation, it was taken down.

The quotation read:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow: It was a passage in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow in 1954

 Not Murrow’s line

The second sentence of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In mid-February 2011, I noted that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s first appearance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak, who said he believed the Web page containing the suspect quote had been developed before his arrival at Washington State in 2009, referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the ‘loyal opposition’ quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

The bogus Murrow quote about “the loyal opposition” has popped up before.

For example, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq, Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage — and claimed Murrow was its author.

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Confronting the mythology of Watergate

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I plan to call attention to prominent media myths of Watergate during a panel discussion in Montreal this afternoon, three days shy of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in America’s gravest political scandal.

AEJMC 2014 panel_flier3The venue is the annual conference of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and other panelists include Max Holland, author of the well-received Watergate book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, and my colleague at American University, John C. Watson, author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.

Moderating the panel — titled “Beyond the Mythology of Watergate” — will be Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland and author of the award-winning Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

I intend to discuss the dominant narrative of Watergate — the mythical notion that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate crimes of Nixon and forced his resignation.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The trope is endlessly appealing to journalists and has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate. It is, after all, a handy proxy for grasping the essence of Watergate — Nixon resigned because of criminal misconduct — while avoiding the scandal’s mind-numbing complexity.

The many layers of  Watergate — the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not easily understood or readily recalled these days. The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

Hence, the enduring appeal and tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. It’s history lite, history made accessible, history made simple.

As I plan to point out today, the disclosures by Woodward and Bernstein about the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972 weren’t nearly enough to force the president’s resignation. And the decisive revelations of Watergate — among them the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — weren’t the work of the Washington Post.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term in office if not for the Watergate tapes, which clearly showed him approving a cover-up of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.Getting It Wrong_cover

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

The movie in fact ignores and even denigrates the work of other agencies and actors in the many-tenacled investigations of Watergate.

But why, some observers might ask, do Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein, still matter after 40 years? Why does anyone much care?

They care because Woodward and Bernstein 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.

Woodward and Bernstein are septuagenarians but they speak eagerly about their salad days, especially on occasions presented by the anniversaries of Watergate. The Post brought them together last week for what turned out to be a surprisingly boring look back at Watergate. That tedious program notwithstanding, their saga remains an appealing parable — that dogged and imaginative reporting can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change.

They very much are the heroic faces of Watergate, the journalists who saved us from Nixon.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Watergate made boring

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 31, 2014 at 9:45 am

The Washington Post brought together its legendary Watergate reporters last night for a lengthy look back at the scandal that culminated 40 years ago next week with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The program was notable for how it made Watergate seem tedious and stale.

(Woodward (Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Woodward: Not much new

It was striking how little new the reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had to say about covering a scandal that catapulted them to fame and wealth. In that, perhaps, was implicit recognition that their reporting contributed marginally at best to Watergate’s outcome.

Given that the program was convened in an auditorium at the Post, it was a bit surprising there were no self-congratulatory claims that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency, no embrace of what I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate.

To his credit, Bernstein acknowledged the forces that combined to end Nixon’s presidency, including the Senate select committee that uncovered the decisive evidence of Watergate — the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over the tape recordings subpoenaed by prosecutors.

But mostly, the program lurched from topic to topic, from a lengthy discussion about Nixon’s abuses and his “tortured mind” (as the moderator, Ruth Marcus, put it) to non-Watergate topics such as the scandalous IRS conduct in targeting conservative political organizations for scrutiny.

Woodward and Bernstein took turns plugging each other’s books. Author Elizabeth Drew, who also was on the panel, went on and on and on about Nixon’s criminality and about how the IRS scandal is nothing like Watergate.

Bernstein, invariably voluble as well, lavished praised on Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, the Post’s executive editor and publisher during the Watergate period. Woodward cracked a few jokes, injecting what little humor the program offered. And Marcus asked a ludicrous and unanswerable question about what Watergate would be like had it happened in age of Twitter.

Notably missing was any insightful appraisal of the journalism of Watergate or any discussion of the scandal’s enduring mysteries (such as did Nixon know in advance about the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 of the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee). Woodward and Bernstein rehashed a few reporting anecdotes familiar to people knowledgeable about Watergate; among them, Attorney General John Mitchell’s vulgar remark that Graham risked finding her tit caught in a ringer.

WaPo panel_crowd

In line for a tedious program

What was most impressive about the two-hour program was the turnout it attracted: Easily 1,000 people showed up, crowding the newspaper’s auditorium and an adjacent overflow room. (The editor of the Post’s “Book World” section, Ron Charles, said in a Tweet last night that he had “never seen a crowd at The Post like the one lined up for … Woodward & Bernstein talk on Watergate.”)

The Post’s public relations staff clearly was ill-equipped to handle such a crowd. More than a few people who thought they had registered online found that the Post staff had no record of their having signed up. And at one point, the video feed to the overflow room went dark, prompting dozens of people to enter the already crowded auditorium to stand and watch as the panelists droned on.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Check out The 1995 blog

In Anniversaries, Year studies on July 2, 2014 at 6:00 am

Readers of Media Myth Alert are invited to visit the just-launched 1995 blog, which will be directing attention to the important moments of 1995, and helping to promote my forthcoming book about that decisive year.

1995bookcoverThe book is 1995: The Year the Future Began and will be published later this year by the University of California Press. (The book may be pre-ordered through Amazon.com, the retailing giant that began selling books online in July 1995, as well as Barnes & Noble)

The respective chapters of 1995 are:

  • “The Year of the Internet,” which considers the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web into mainstream consciousness
  • “Terror in the heartland,” which discusses the Oklahoma City bombing and its consequences
  • “O.J., DNA, and the ‘Trial of the Century,” which takes up the sensational, months-long double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson
  • “Peace at Dayton and the ‘hubris bubble,’” which revisits the U.S.-brokered peace talks that ended the vicious war in Bosnia, and
  • “Clinton meets Lewinsky,” which addresses the origins and effects of the sex-and-lies scandal that led to the impeachment in 1998 of President Bill Clinton.

These events and moments were, as I write in 1995, “profound in their respective ways and, taken together, they define a watershed year at the cusp of the millennium. Nineteen ninety-five in many ways effectively marked the close of the one century, and the start of another.”

I also write about 1995:

“It is striking how a sense of the improbable often flavored the year and characterized its watershed moments. Oklahoma City was an utterly improbable setting for an attack of domestic terrorism of unprecedented dimension. Dayton, Ohio, was an improbable venue for weeks of multiparty negotiations that concluded by ending the faraway war in Bosnia. The private study and secluded hallway off the Oval Office at the White House were the improbable hiding places for Clinton’s dalliance” with a 22-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky.

“The improbable,” I add, “was a constant of the year.”

1995 is my sixth book. I have also written Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, an award-winning work that the University of California Press brought out in 2010.

I also have written The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (2006); The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents (2005); Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001), and The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire: From Voice of the State to Advocate of Democracy (1998).

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

60 years on, CBS extols Murrow show on McCarthy as TV ‘turning point’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Predictably perhaps, CBS has recalled Edward R. Murrow’s mythical takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy 60 years ago as “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.

In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy and did so “only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.

The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”

In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.

So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer,  rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.

Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

McCarthy: Brutish

McCarthy: Brutish

But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.

In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

How so was left unexplained.

The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.

McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.

Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.

Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.

On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.

“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.

In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Quotes, Television on February 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

We’ll likely see a modest surge in the appearance of media myths in the next couple of weeks, with the approach of hallowed moments of exaggerated importance in media history.

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

The 60th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s program about the excesses of Senator Joseph M. McCarthy — sometimes called the finest half-hour in television history — falls in two weeks.

The media myth has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four years before.

In fact, Murrow was very late to take on McCarthy, and did so only after several other journalists had called attention to the senator’s excesses.  Notable among them was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist who began questioning the substance of McCarthy’s red-baiting accusations almost as soon as the senator began raising them.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow, in the days and weeks after his program about McCarthy, acknowledged that he had reinforced what others had long said about the senator.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

But in the runup to the anniversary of program about McCarthy, we’re likely to hear far more about how Murrow was a courageous white knight, rather than a belated chronicler of McCarthy’s egregious ways.

This week brings the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” another mythical moment in television history that long ago assumed greater importance than it ever deserved.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared at the close of special report about the war in Vietnam that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the quagmire.

Cronkite’s observations supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pronouncement, the media myth has it, the president snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

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

Or something to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible tale which — like the Murrow-McCarthy media myth — is cited as compelling evidence of the power of television news and/or the remarkable sway of influential journalists.

Politico Magazine embraced the “influential journalist” interpretation the other day in recalling the putative “Cronkite Moment” in a lengthy, rambling essay.

The essay declared that Cronkite “had social weight. It seemed as if he spoke for the entire nation. Ironically, a country riven by war and social tensions had an elite that looked and thought about things pretty much the same way as Walter Cronkite.

“When Cronkite said the war [in Vietnam] was a disaster,” the essay continued, “many of them knew the jig was up. A month or so after Cronkite spoke those words, LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential election. As Johnson was said to remark to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.'”

Except there’s little evidence that Johnson or other U.S. policymakers in 1968 were much moved by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observations.

By the time of Cronkite’s special report, “stalemate” was an unremarkable way of describing the war effort in Vietnam. The New York Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, including a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it,  the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Cronkite’s remarks about “stalemate” in Vietnam had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to run for reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s diminished political support within the Democratic party. By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And Johnson may have decided well before then against seeking another four-year term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that long before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light about Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence also is scant that Cronkite’s program had much influence on popular opinion. Indeed, polls had detected shifts in sentiment against the war in Vietnam months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary. Which means the anchorman was following rather than precipitating shifts in public opinion.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch’s] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch_headline_Post

Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“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.”

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2013:

The ombudsman agrees: PBS ‘War of the Worlds’ doc was missed opportunity

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on November 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm
Getler

Getler

Not many news organizations these days have internal critics, usually known as ombudsmen or “reader representatives.” Michael Getler, the ombudsman for PBS, is the best of them.

He’s a straightshooter, tough but fairminded.

Getler was often outstanding in five years as ombudsman at the Washington Post, notably calling out the newspaper’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch’s mythical battlefield exploits early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private whom the Post catapulted to international fame in a story in April 2003 that claimed she fought fiercely in an ambush in Iraq, firing at her attackers despite being shot and stabbed and seeing comrades “die around her.” Lynch was taken prisoner, the Post, reported, only after running out of ammunition.

The electrifying story, which the Post based on otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials,” was wrong in every important detail. In his analyses, Getler was withering and incisive.

The hero-warrior story about Lynch, he wrote, “had an odor to it almost from the beginning, and other news organizations blew holes in it well before The Post did….”

Why, he asked in one of his columns, did the information in the Post’s hero-warrior story “remain unchallenged for so long?

“What were the motivations (and even the identities) of the leakers and sustainers of this myth, and why didn’t reporters dig deeper into it more quickly?” Getler asked.

Excellent questions, which the Post never has deigned to address.

In 2005, Getler became the first ombudsman at PBS, to help ensure “that PBS upholds its own rigorous standards of journalistic ethics for both online and on-air content.”

I was in touch with Getler by email weeks before PBS aired its recent turgid documentary about the famous radio dramatization in 1938 of The War of the Worlds, which told of a Martian invasion of the United States.

I described to Getler my concerns that the documentary would embrace the media myth that The War of the Worlds program set off mass panic and nationwide hysteria on the night it was aired. I also asked about how the documentary would present or characterize recent scholarship that has impugned the panic-and-hysteria interpretation.

My concerns were heightened because pre-broadcast material that PBS posted online said “perhaps a million [people] or more” were  “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

Getler forwarded my queries to Mark Samels, executive producer of the PBS “American Experience” series. Soon after, Getler told me that Samels said he was “not going to respond to someone who has not seen the program.” This was seven weeks before the documentary aired.

(Getler also noted that he did not speak for PBS and has no “pre-broadcast role” at the organization.)

I subsequently sent an email directly to Samels, reiterating my concerns.

Samels never replied.

Immediately after the documentary was shown Tuesday evening, I posted a commentary at Media Myth Alert saying the program represented a squandered opportunity to revisit The War of the Worlds dramatization in a searching and educational way.

PBS,  I wrote, “could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.”

But PBS failed to raise searching questions or offer revealing insight about the famous radio show; instead, it presented a tedious program that claimed upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

No explanation was offered during the program as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a dubious figure.

Getler yesterday posted a thoughtful and insightful critique about the documentary. Notably, he pointed out that shortly before the program ended, “the narrator, just casually in his final summing up, includes this sentence:  ‘Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press.'”

“Really!” Getler wrote. “Is that not part of the real story? Is that not worth more than a sentence at the end of an hour-long program? Could that be described by some as burying the lead?”

“Burying the lead” is journalese for failing to assign prominence to the most important information of a news report.

And he’s right: PBS buried the lead in its War of the Worlds documentary.

Big time.

Getler also wrote:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.'”

Getler’s column closed with comments — at long last — from Samels, who stated:

“Our film does not say that people panicked, nor does the script include the phrase ‘mass hysteria.'”

Ah, but the documentary invoked “chaos” to describe reactions to The War of the Worlds radio program. And as Getler noted in his critique, the documentary displayed “several banner newspaper headlines” published the day after 1938 dramatization. The effect was to suggest that the radio show had spread panic across the country.

Which assuredly it had not.

Those headlines made such declarations as:

  • “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”
  • “Radio ‘Martian Attack’ Terrorizes U.S. Hearers, Thousands in Panic”WOW Newspaper
  • “Radio Fake Scares Nation”

And of course, PBS did claim in the documentary that “upwards of a million people” were convinced, if briefly, the country was under Martian attack — an estimate Samels in his comments said was taken from Hadley Cantril’s 1940 book, The Invasion From Mars.

But Cantril estimated that 1 million to 1.2 million people may have been “frightened” or “disturbed” or “excited” by what they heard. He did not exactly say those listeners were “convinced” the country was under Martian attack. And as I point out in Getting It Wrong, Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fear or excitement.

Being “frightened” or “disturbed” is hardly synonymous with being “panic-stricken.”

In any event, there are more recent and more discerning sources than Cantril’s problematic, 73-year-old book about The War of the Worlds program. But Samels and the documentary’s producer ignored those sources.

Another matter about the PBS documentary awaits Getler’s consideration.

This has to do with the program’s recreated dialog, in which actors dressed in period clothing gave voice to reactions that contemporaneous listeners of the radio program had described in letters.

One of the actors spoke the words of a “Sylvia Holmes” of Newark, New Jersey.

'Sylvia Holmes'

‘Sylvia Holmes’

“Holmes” was presented in the documentary as someone deeply frightened by the radio show.

But her remarks on the PBS documentary were drawn from Cantril’s 1940 book. As media historian Michael Socolow has pointed out, Cantril did not use real names in the book. Indeed, Cantril wrote:

“All names of respondents used in the text, are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised, but the true flavor of the case studies is preserved.”

So “Sylvia Holmes” is a pseudonym. And in a posting at Twitter that addressed Socolow’s point, PBS seemed to say it knew that. Left unclear, though, is why the documentary presented a fictitious name as if it were real.

PBS editorial standards say that programming “content should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

In offering viewers the comments of the pseudonymous “Sylvia Holmes,” PBS may have skirted its cornerstone guidance.

WJC

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