W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Washington Post’ 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.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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WaPo now embracing the dominant myth of Watergate?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 22, 2014 at 8:05 pm

To its credit, the Washington Post over the years has mostly declined to embrace the dominant media myth about the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Nixon resigns_1974

Not the Post’s doing: Nixon resigns, 1974

The dominant narrative is that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency. It’s one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.

Principals at the Post, among them Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, typically have steered well clear of what I call the hero-journalist myth. Graham, who died in 2001, said in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Michael Getler, who was an outstanding ombudsman for the Post, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

In earthier terms, Woodward, too, has scoffed at the dominant narrative, declaring in an interview in 2004:

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

But of late, such myth-avoidance has slipped.

In an article last month about the planned demolition of the parking garage where Woodward periodically conferred with a stealthy, high-level source codenamed “Deep Throat,” the Post said the source “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

The source — who revealed himself years later to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — did no such thing.

As I noted soon after the Post article appeared, if Felt had shared obstruction-of-justice evidence with Woodward — and if the Post had published such information — the uproar would have been so intense that Nixon certainly would have had to resign the presidency long before he did in August 1974.

But it was not until late summer 1974 — several months after Felt’s retirement from the FBI — when unequivocal evidence emerged about Nixon’s attempt to block FBI’s investigation into the foiled burglary in 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.

Watergate marker_cropped

The marker with the error

(I also pointed out that the Post’s erroneous description of the information Felt shared with Woodward was almost word-for-word identical to a passage on the historical marker that was placed outside the garage in 2011. The marker says: “Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.” The Post article said Felt “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”)

In any case, the Post hasn’t corrected its mischaracterization about the information Felt passed on to Woodward.

And in today’s issue, John Kelly, a popular Post columnist, referred to Bernstein as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

Kelly’s column neither explained nor elaborated on Bernstein’s putative “role in bringing down” Nixon. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was not decisive in Watergate’s outcome. Their contributions — while glamorized in the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men — were marginal in forcing Nixon’s resignation.

Rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings that he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into  the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, seminal crime of Watergate.

It is not clear whether the recent examples of myth-embrace reflect laziness, inattentive editing, or a gradual inclination to embrace an interpretation of Watergate that is beguiling but misleading. It is an easy-to-remember, simplified version of the history of America’s greatest political scandal.

And it’s wrong.

WJC

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‘Deep Throat’ garage to be razed: The inaccurate historical marker should go, too

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 16, 2014 at 10:36 am

The parking garage in suburban Virginia where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward occasionally met with his stealthy Watergate source “Deep Throat” is to be torn down to permit construction of two commercial and residential towers.

While they’re at it, local authorities ought to scrap the inaccurate historical marker that went up near the garage a few years ago.

Watergate marker_cropped

Melt it down

The garage is in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington. Woodward met there on six occasions in 1972 and 1973 with his source, who in 2005 identified himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official.

Woodward’s meetings with “Deep Throat” are commemorated by a marker that declares:

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

In its article yesterday about the garage’s planned demolition, the Post used phrasing almost identical to that of the marker, stating that Felt “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Both the marker and the newspaper are incorrect in saying so.

Had Felt shared obstruction-of-justice evidence with Woodward in 1972 or 1973 (and had the Post published such information), the uproar would have been so intense that Nixon surely would have had to resign the presidency long before he did in August 1974.

But it was not until late summer 1974 — months after Felt’s retirement — when unequivocal evidence emerged about Nixon’s attempt to block FBI’s investigation into Watergate.

That came about when Nixon complied with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling and surrendered audiotape recordings he had secretly made of conversations at the White House.

The recording of Nixon’s meeting with his top aide, H.R. Haldemann, on June 23, 1972, revealed that the president had sought to deflect or derail the FBI investigation into the burglary six days earlier at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington. The burglary was Watergate’s seminal crime.

The recording of Nixon’s conversation with Haldemann was called the “Smoking Gun” and it was that tape — not information Felt passed on to Woodward — that exposed Nixon’s guilty role in Watergate and forced his resignation. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had Nixon not recorded his conversations, he likely would have survived the Watergate scandal and served out his term.Getting It Wrong_cover

In any case, the historical marker is inaccurate and ought to be scrapped. And the Post’s article yesterday ought to be corrected.

So what sort of information did “Deep Throat” pass on to Woodward?

All the President’s Men, the book in which Woodward and co-author Carl Bernstein introduced the secret source, says Woodward’s conversations with “Deep Throat” were intended “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

All the President’s Men also says “Deep Throat” tended to be cautious in what he shared with Woodward:

“He always told rather less than he knew.”

WJC

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Maddow cherry-picks to avoid correcting claim about Pentagon, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post on June 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

To cherry-pick is to be highly selective, to use facts that support one’s position while ignoring the confounding evidence.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

And that’s essentially what Rachel Maddow did on her MSNBC program last night. She cherry-picked details about the reporting of the hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch to avoid correcting her erroneous claim on a show June 3. Maddow had said in a commentary that night “the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics in the first days of the Iraq War.

In cherry-picking, Maddow failed to mention the foundation of the bogus hero-warrior story – the Washington Post article that cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch, then a 19-year-old supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, on March 23, 2003. The Post’s story turned out to be wrong in almost all vital details.

One of the reporters on the story, which the Post published on its front page on April 3, 2003, later said, unequivocally:

Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Rather, he said, without a trace of irony, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C.

The reporter was Vernon Loeb, who at the time the Post’s defense correspondent. He also said in an interview that aired on NPR in December 2003: “We got these intelligence reports right as [Lynch] was being rescued” in an operation mounted by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003. Lynch has been grievously injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the ambush; she was taken prisoner and held at an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah.

Loeb said the Post’s story “turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong.”

What’s more, he said:

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those [intelligence] reports at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all. They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

Despite Loeb’s statements about the sourcing of the hero-warrior story, a false narrative has taken hold over the years that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, supposedly to build homefront support for the war.

On her show last night, Maddow referred neither to Loeb’s statements nor to the Post’s seminal report about Lynch. She instead assailed Politifact, a blog aligned with Punditfact, which had assessed as false her claim last week that the Pentagon “made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.

According to a transcript of her remarks last night, Maddow smugly declared:

“So, this is a pretty simple thing from the fact-checking perspective. Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative that Jessica Lynch went down fighting when she was captured?”

(Note the none-too-subtle shift: On her program June 3, Maddow asserted that “the Pentagon made up” the story about Lynch’s heroics. Last night, her parameters were: “Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative ….” Not quite the same.)

Maddow referred last night to a report by 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 also was quoted as saying. “Reports are that she fired her (M-16 rifle) until she had no more ammunition.”

Maddow crowed: “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.

Lynch_headline_Post

WaPo’s hero-warrior story

Thorp,  then a Navy captain assigned to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing, he was following. He was restating elements of a story the Post had already placed in circulation, a story based on intelligence sources, a story that quickly attracted all sorts of international attention.

As the Post’s ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, pointed out: “The Post story [about Lynch] was exclusive. The rest of the world’s media picked it up from The Post, which put this tale into the public domain.”

Indeed, it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story. And Thorp’s subsequent statements made clear that he had been following the Post’s lead that day. Thorp said in an email in 2007 to a congressional staffer who had asked about the comments to the Military Times:

“As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States .…  I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same .… I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them .… We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred .… That is what I stated.” (Ellipses in the original.)

Thorp later was quoted by Newsweek as saying he was not a source for the Post on its seminal story about Lynch’s heroics.

Which makes sense. Had he been a source for the Post on the Lynch story, why would the newspaper resist identifying him as such, especially after his remarks to the Military Times? If Thorp, a military spokesman, had been a source for the Post, why would Loeb, months after the hero-warrior story was published, insist that his sources had been “intelligence sources”?

Thorp at most played a bit part in the Lynch saga.

Besides, the cynical, Pentagon-made-it-up narrative never made much sense. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “At the time of the Lynch rescue, U.S. forces were closing in on Baghdad. So it defies logic to argue that the American military would have singled out and hyped the Lynch rescue for morale-building purposes when its central and vastly more important wartime objective was within reach.”

WJC

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Now from the right: ‘American Spectator’ wrongly says Jessica Lynch was ‘portrayed by Pentagon as hero’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post on June 8, 2014 at 8:58 am

In an otherwise cogent critique of Rachel Maddow’s recent commentary about returned American prisoner Bowe Berghdahl, the right-of-center American Spectator wrongly accused the Pentagon of portraying Jessica Lynch “as a hero” early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army supply clerk severely injured March 23, 2003, in the crash of her Humvee while fleeing an ambush in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The Washington Post, though, reported that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds as she fought fiercely against the attacking Iraqis. She kept firing, the Post said, until she ran out of ammunition.

None of those details was accurate, however. Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon jammed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, but was badly hurt in the Humvee crash. Lynch was taken prisoner and held in an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

AmSpecturkey_1

American Spectator logo

In the years since the Post’s hero-warrior story was published on April 3, 2003, a false narrative has taken hold that says the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do. The American Spectator’s claim, included in a commentary posted online Friday, is the latest evocation of that narrative.

We know it’s a false narrative because one of the Post reporters on the story has flatly stated that the newspaper’s sources for the story “were not Pentagon sources.” The reporter, Vernon Loeb, who in 2003 was the Post’s defense correspondent, further stated in an interview in December 2003 on NPR that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb, now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also said in the interview:

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

None of that what acknowledged by the liberal Maddow in an on-air commentary Tuesday on MSNBC in which she sought to equate the rescue of Lynch with the release of Bergdahl, the American soldier whose comrades say deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was taken captive by the Taliban and exchanged a week ago for five senior Taliban figures.

In her commentary, Maddow asserted without citing sources that the Pentagon had “made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics. The American Spectator, in taking issue with Maddow’s equating the cases of Lynch and Bergdahl, committed a similar error: Lynch, it said, “was initially portrayed by the Pentagon as a hero … who went down guns blazing and riddled with bullets.”

Loeb and the Post have never made clear how it got the Lynch-combat story so utterly wrong — a story that Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, memorably described as having “had an odor to it almost from the beginning.”

Loeb’s interview on NPR was the Post’s most detailed public discussion about sourcing for that story, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt reported from Washington, D.C. But even that discussion fell woefully short in important respects.

In the NPR interview, Loeb said “we were told by some really good intelligence sources here in Washington that, you know, there were indications that [Lynch] had, you know, fired back and resisted her capture and actually been shot and possibly stabbed doing so. None of this turned out to be the case as we, you know, quickly learned. But, you know, we basically told our readers that day what the U.S. intelligence community was telling senior members of the U.S. government. It just kind of goes back to the old adage that, you know, initial reports from the battlefield are almost always wrong.”

Despite the recognized unreliability of such reports, the Post placed its account of Lynch’s supposed exploits in combat on the front page, thrusting the hero-warrior tale into the public domain. And the story was picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, declared that “Private Lynch has won a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero, to rival the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.”

In its erroneous report about Lynch, Post cited otherwise unnamed “U.S. officials” as sources. The newspaper has never identified them.Getting It Wrong_cover

In 2008, I called Loeb to discuss the matter but he hung up on me. I was at the time researching my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a chapter of which is devoted to the bogus hero-warrior story about Lynch.

So if the Post will not disclose the sources that led it to such embarrassment, the next-best step would be for news organizations to avoid, resist, and deep-six the false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon.

Important steps to that end can be taken if Maddow and the American Spectator were to issue corrections to their erroneous reports.

WJC

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Jessica Lynch, the Fin Times, and ‘big propaganda stories’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 am

It is well-understood that the tale of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003 was bogus.

Much less well-understood is how the story of her purported derring-do entered the public domain.

Many accounts of the exaggerated hero-warrior tale blame the U.S. government or the U.S. military — or simply the U.S. — for cynically attempting to turn Lynch, then-19-year-old Army supply clerk, into a wartime hero.

Far fewer accounts identify the real source of error — a botched report published 11 years ago today in the Washington Post.

Lynch_headline_Post

Page one 11 years ago: The Post’s botched story

Most recently to err in describing the derivation of the Lynch saga is London’s Financial Times, a sophisticated newspaper printed on distinctive salmon-colored newsprint.

The Financial Times ruminated in a commentary the other day about “the power of peace” and included this vague yet pointed accusation:

“During the Iraq war, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false.”

How so, “the US”? The commentary doesn’t say.

In the case of Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger and former professional football player, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command said that he had been killed by enemy gunfire in 2004, in Afghanistan. A subsequent Defense Department investigation determined his death was caused by friendly fire.

But in the Lynch case, it was the Washington Post — not “the US,” and certainly not the U.S. military — that was the source of the bogus report.

In a front-page article published April 3, 2003, the Post claimed that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition” and was captured.

The Post declared that Lynch suffered “multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in fighting in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Post cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” as sources for the electrifying account of the young woman’s heroism.

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — was wrong in almost every major respect. The ambush did occur, on March 23, 2003, in the first days of the Iraq War. But Lynch did not fire her weapon in the attack. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the escape. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Lynch in 2003

Lynch in 2003

The Post has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its erroneous report. But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb did make clear that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

In an interview with NPR in December 2003, 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.”

Over the years, though, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon made it all up.

What accounts for this transformation? Why has the Post’s singular role in the Lynch case been so thoroughly eclipsed?

One reason is that it’s perversely delicious and sinister to assert that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch and somehow fed it to gullible news outlets. That’s a far more engaging story than that of mangled newspaper reporting.

Another reason is that the Post, on occasion, has been complicit in muddying its decisive contribution to Lynch fable.

The newspaper has been known to characterize the hero-warrior tale as one that other news media were telling, too. That’s true, but only after the Post published the story that made Lynch, quite undeservedly, the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

Eleven years on, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly botched its report about Lynch.

WJC

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NYCity new mayor gushes over Bernstein, Woodward and their putative contributions to Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Bill de Blasio, New York’s recently inaugurated mayor, fairly gushed at a news conference yesterday about Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and their putative roles in unraveling the Watergate scandal, saying the duo exerted a major influence on his life.

De Blasio credited Bernstein and Woodward, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public understanding about Watergate.

deBlasio

de Blasio

“I always say I’m a child of the Watergate summer,” de Blasio declared at the news conference. “And I had an extraordinary experience a year or two ago when I first met Carl Bernstein who’s, I think, one of the people … who had the biggest impact on my life, with Bob Woodward. Because for any of us who were deeply affected by that moment in history, those two individuals framed and, you know, created that moment so much and so deeply.”

The mayor’s soliloquy was prompted by a reporter’s question about whether de Blasio ever considered becoming a journalist. “I did, for a bit,” the mayor said, “never overly coherently.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

It wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether Bernstein and Woodward much contributed to — let alone “framed” or “created” — conditions that gave rise to the 1973 Watergate hearings. By then, there were many other, more powerful and subpoena-wielding forces at work seeking to unravel the unfolding scandal.

As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive.

It’s instructive to note the decisive elements of the scandal that Bernstein and Woodward did not disclose.

They did not, for example, break the news about hush payments to the burglars who committed the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward disclose that Nixon secretly made audiorecordings of most of his private conversations at the Oval Office. The White House tapes were pivotal to Watergate’s denouement, revealing that Nixon conspired to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

The existence of the tapes was revealed by the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, in the midst of the “Watergate summer,” which de Blasio recalled yesterday as “one of the most riveting things that’s happened in the history of the republic.”

The hearings, the mayor said, represented “an affirmation of democracy. It was an affirmation of what good elected leaders can do, even if the face of tremendous odds. It certainly was an affirmation of the role of the media in our society.”

To the last claim — probably not.

De Blasio was not asked at the news conference to elaborate on his extravagant remarks about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate, remarks that all but embraced the myth of the heroic journalist.

Not to mention the “golden age” fallacy.

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:

Editor’s little-noted memoir offers intriguing insight about WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

It’s mentioned on few if any “books of the year” lists, but the recent memoir by a former Washington Post editor offers revealing insights about the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, describing how one of them, Carl Bernstein, was such a slacker that he was nearly dismissed in the early 1970s.

Rosenfeld memoir_coverThe memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate, is Harry Rosenfeld’s telling of his long career in newspapering. He was the Post’s metropolitan editor during Watergate and managed Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in 1972 and 1973 were the newspaper’s lead reporters on the unfolding scandal.

Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Or so the media myth has it.

Rosenfeld comes close in his book to embracing the myth of Watergate, stating that the Post “played a key role in assisting the ship of state to stay the course while navigating through the stormy waters of a constitutional crisis” that brought Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He makes scant acknowledgement of the more powerful investigative forces — congressional and judicial — that combined to uncover Nixon’s criminal misconduct and bring an end to his presidency.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome were modest at best.

Rosenfeld writes with evident pride about Woodward and the “intensity of his work habits.” By the time the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Rosenfeld says, Woodward “had established himself as a fully qualified reporter, sharper than most and more ambitious and hardworking than any.”

The most delicious passages of Rosenfeld’s book discuss Bernstein’s troubled times at the Post during the period before and shortly after the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein, he writes, routinely antagonized his editors, was known for missing deadlines while regularly logging many hours of unapproved overtime, and was notorious for failing to submit expense reports. He also had a tendency on assignments to rent cars that he was slow to return, running up late charges for the Post.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

After such a caper in the summer of 1972, the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and its managing editor, Howard Simons, wanted Rosenfeld to fire Bernstein. He had “yet again rented a car and left it stranded in a parking lot for days, with costly rental fees mounting by the hour,” Rosenfeld writes.

But Rosenfeld demurred, telling the editors that dismissing Bernstein made no sense when, “‘for once in his life, Carl is producing the goods'” in reporting on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Bernstein kept his job.

Rosenfeld had laid groundwork for dismissing Bernstein in 1971, after the reporter had failed to submit an article about the port of Norfolk, VA, despite his many promises to produce the story.

Rosenfeld sat in on what he called “a heart-to-heart” conversation between Bernstein and his then-editor, Kevin Klose, who later became dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

After the heart-to-heart, Rosenfeld wrote in a memorandum that it had been made clear to Bernstein “‘that he either begins to be a productive reporter or he and the Post better go separate ways and that if cannot soon come to grips with his responsibilities to his job, that I would move against him on negligence of duty. …'”

Bernstein, Rosenfeld wrote in the memorandum, “‘understood that if he could not become productive and that if he and his editors continued to be antagonistic all the time, it would be better for him to leave. He said that … I would see a much changed man.’

“That new man,” Rosenfeld says, “clearly emerged in Watergate — a full year after his pledge. In the course of Watergate, the tiger changed his stripes, the leopard his spots, and Joshua commanded the sun not to set and the moon to stand still. The transformation was that epic. …. If he had persisted in his old ways … he almost surely would have been fired, for which the legal groundwork had been laid.”

Still, Bernstein’s redemption was less than total. Even when doing his best work, Rosenfeld notes in the book, Bernstein “still managed to remain irritating.”

So why, more than 40 years afterward,  is all of this important?

As Rosenfeld notes, it is “worth contemplating” how Bernstein — who remains one of America’s best-known and most outspoken journalists — nearly missed having an “historic role” in the Watergate story. Rosenfeld’s memoir also demonstrates how unpopular Bernstein was in the Post’s newsroom.

More important is that Rosenfeld’s unflattering characterizations, which clearly are offered not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way that Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not do in their bestselling 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

Finally, the passages about Bernstein serves as a reminder that the most engaging memoirs are those not sanitized. Although the book has not received wide attention, Rosenfeld’s memoir is commendable for its candor about Bernstein.

WJC

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