W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Anniversaries’ Category

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.


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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.


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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).


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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.


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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.



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.


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.”


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.


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


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.


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‘War of the Worlds’ made boring: PBS documentary is tedious fare

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm

The War of Worlds made dull.

That’s what PBS has accomplished in an hour-long American Experience documentary about the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which aired 75 years ago and told of a deadly invasion of the United States by Martians wielding heat rays.

Welles, the day after

Orson Welles, 1938

The PBS documentary to be broadcast Tuesday is a plodding, disjointed program that provides some back story to the famous program, which starred and was directed by Orson Welles (left).

And it tries much too hard to make the argument that a war scare in Europe in late September 1938 had all of America still on edge four weeks later, when the radio show aired.

But its greatest flaw lies in embracing as a premise the dubious assumption that The War of the Worlds dramatization on October 30, 1938, provoked chaos and scared Americans out of their wits.

The documentary seeks to underscore its dubious premise through commentary spoken by actors in period clothing. The actors pretend to be sitting for interviews as they give voice to sentiments contained in letters written in 1938 to Welles, the Federal Communications Commission, and CBS, which aired the dramatization.

The actors aren’t convincing, their comments seem stilted and contrived, and the effect is cheesy, eye-rolling, and suggestive of so much filler.

The letters, drawn from a well-known archive of Welles material at the University of Michigan, were of course hardly representative of the public’s reactions to The War of the Worlds dramatization. But PBS makes no mention of that.

The documentary claims that upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

But no explanation is offered as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a figure.

Not only is it unsourced, but the figure is surely exaggerated.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, most listeners, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the radio show for what it was — deliciously clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween in 1938.

The notion that The War of the Worlds program was so frightening that tens of thousands of people were sent into the streets in panic is, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

Had chaos and hysteria swept the United States that night long ago, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries,” I further wrote.

But no deaths and few injuries were conclusively linked to the program.

Indeed, there is only scant evidence that listeners acted on whatever fears they may have had. Many of them made the entirely rational decision to seek confirmation or clarification by calling external sources known to be usually reliable, such as local newspapers, police departments, and fire stations.

The PBS documentary, however, cites heightened call volumes as evidence of Americans being scared out of their wits.

Listeners that night also turned the radio dial to see whether other stations were carrying reports about an invasion from Mars.  None were, of course. The documentary ignores that reaction, too.

Discerning listeners, moreover, recognized that events in the radio play moved far too rapidly to be realistic. The pacing was such that within 30 minutes, the Martians blasted off from their home planet, traveled millions across space, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, disrupted local and national communications, and forced declarations of martial law.

During the radio dramatization’s closing half-hour, the aliens marched on and destroyed much of New York City and took control of swaths of the United States before succumbing to the effects of humble earthly germs.

The documentary would have been far more compelling had it examined rather than swallowed whole the conventional wisdom about the radio play, had it raised searching questions as to whether the dramatization did provoke chaos and panic.

But the documentary makers took the easy way out and fashioned a program that dutifully and dully accepts the received wisdom without recognizing recent scholarship that has impugned what PBS took as a premise.

The radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds wasn’t panic-inducing. It was memorable and entertaining — neither of which can be said about the tedious fare that PBS will offer up in two days.


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Upcoming PBS show on ‘War of Worlds’ may reinforce media myth — in cheesy fashion

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on August 29, 2013 at 11:05 am

An upcoming PBS documentary about the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization seems certain to embrace the media myth that the show provoked panic across the United States when it aired nearly 75 years ago.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of Worlds’

The PBS program is to be shown October 29, on the eve of the anniversary of the radio play that starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of the invasion of America by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

The ever-appealing tale of radio-inducted hysteria is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Simply put, the notion that The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria is Halloween’s greatest media myth.

I note in Getting It Wrong that pockets of Americans may have been frightened by the program. But there is scant evidence that many listeners acted on their fears. And being frightened is hardly synonymous with being pitched into panic and hysteria.

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria  swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.

Nonetheless, the panic myth probably is too well-known, and too entrenched in American culture, ever to be thoroughly cast aside. And the PBS program in late October may well serve to reinforce an already-tenacious media myth.

It could be a cheesy show, too. The PBS description suggests as much, saying the program will make use of “letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself” to dramatize “the public’s reaction … with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment… or the end of the world.”

(The actor outtakes posted online undeniably are cheesy.)

The PBS program, should it promote the media myth, would run counter to a substantial body of research that has dismissed or cast serious doubt on the notion Welles’ radio program caused panic and mass hysteria. In addition to my research and Socolow’s work, Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on the phenomenon of panics, has written that many people wrongly “believe a panic took place” during and immediately after the airing of The War of the Worlds radio show.

Moreover, this month has brought publication of The United States of Paranoia, a sophisticated study of conspiracy theories in the United States. The book, written by Jesse Walker, an editor at  Reason magazine, addresses The War of the Worlds radio show and notes:

“There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, though, that they were any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.”

That’s very good. The producers of the PBS documentary would do well to give thought to such a telling observation.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

More from Media Myth Alert:

The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed

In Anniversaries, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Forty years ago this week, Alexander Butterfield told a U.S. Senate select committee investigating the Watergate scandal that President Richard Nixon had installed a secret audiotaping system in his offices.

Butterfield’s disclosure was one of the most decisive moments in the Watergate. It focused the scandal’s multiple investigations into a months-long pursuit of the tapes — one of which clearly revealed Nixon’s role in attempting to cover up the crimes of Watergate. That revelation forced his resignation in August 1974.

The disclosure of Nixon’s audiotaping system was a major story which the Washington Post — often and inaccurately credited with having “uncovered” or “broken” the Watergate scandal — missed badly.

How the Post fumbled that story makes for an intriguing sidebar at the anniversary of Butterfield’s stunning disclosure. The newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, described in a book about their reporting how leads about the taping system were not pursued.

The book, All the President’s Men, says that Woodward had found out about private testimony that Butterfield had given to staff members of the select committee and he called Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, for guidance.

The call to Bradlee was on a Saturday night. After outlining what he knew, Woodward, according to the book, said:

“We’ll go to work on it, if you want.”

In reply, Bradlee is quoted as saying with some slight irritation, “Well, I don’t know.”

How would you rate the prospective story? Woodward asked him.

“B-plus,” Bradlee replied.

Woodward figured a B-plus wasn’t much, according to the book.

“See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it,” Bradlee is quoted as instructing Woodward.

And Woodward didn’t “bust one.”

Two days later, on July 16, 1973, Butterfield made his reluctant disclosure at a public session of the Senate select committee.

The following day, according to All the President’s Men, Bradlee conceded that the lead about the taping system was “more than a B-plus.”

The anecdote from All the President’s Men is suggestive of the overall minor role that the Post played in uncovering Watergate. As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension 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 if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

All the President’s Men was revealing in other ways about the work and conduct of Woodward and Bernstein. Media critic Jack Shafer, in a column in 2004, revisited a number of reporting flaws and ethical lapses that Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged in their book.

It’s a roster of transgressions that is too-little remembered.


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