W. Joseph Campbell

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Runup to the Oscars: ‘Politically inspired movies’ and the myth of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

The runup to the Academy Awards ceremony brings inevitable bursts of nostalgia — as well as the almost-predictable appearance of hoary media myths.

CNN logoCNN.com today offered a gauzy look back at “politically inspired movies that have been nominated [for] or won” an Oscar. In doing so, CNN bought into the media myth of the Watergate scandal.

The retrospective discussed the 1976 film All The President’s Men, noting that it “won four Oscars and was nominated for four more.”

The movie was an adaptation of a book by the Washington Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, according to CNN, were “responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal and forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon.”

All the President’s Men, CNN added, “provided context and drama about how the reporters brought down the most powerful man on Earth.”

That’s an expansive claim. It’s also glib, and totally mythical.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting did not bring down Nixon. They didn’t uncover the scandal, either.

All President's Men

The movie

Far from it.

Woodward and Bernstein and the Post were at best modest contributors in unraveling an intricate scandal that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Indeed, when considered against the far more decisive forces and factors that uncovered Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions recede into near insignificance.

The decisive forces included special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Even in the face of such an array of forces, I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 the signal crime of Watergate — the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Notably, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal existence of Nixon’s secret tapes, the contents of which proved vital in Watergate’s outcome. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the extent of the attempted coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

What’s more, principals at the Washington Post have from time to time over the years dismissed the notion that the newspaper was central in forcing Nixon’s resignation.

For example, the Post’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, said in 1997 at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Even Woodward has scoffed at the notion, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men contains few references to the subpoena-wielding authorities who really did break open the scandal. Instead, the movie leads audiences to just one, misleading conclusion — that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was vital to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.


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Landmark status for WaPo building? Watergate reporting ought not be a factor

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 6, 2013 at 9:24 am
A landmark?

A landmark?

Could the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting of 40 years ago become a factor in designating the newspaper’s headquarters a local historic landmark?

If so, such a result would represent a serious misreading of history.

The Washington Business Journal  reported yesterday that the D.C. Preservation League plans to consider whether the Post headquarters building, built in 1950, merits landmark status.

The Post last week said it may put the building up for sale, citing economic and operational reasons.

The Business Journal described the Post building in downtown Washington as an example “of Modernist architecture” and added, in a passage of especial interest to Media Myth Alert:

“Beyond its age and architectural design, one could also make a case that the Watergate reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation makes it doubly historically significant.”

Doubly historically significant?

Hardly. Unless, that is, you embrace the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even principals at the Post have claimed that the newspaper’s Watergate reporting “led to” or otherwise brought about Nixon’s resignation.

As Woodward once told the PBS “Frontline” program, “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.

“The Washington Post stories,” Woodward said, “had some part in a chain of events that … were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and afterward the Watergate scandal, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Quite so.

While it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s gravest political scandal.

Those forces, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 the signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The existence of the White House tapes, by the way, was not uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein. That disclosure came in July 1973, at hearings of a Senate select committee on Watergate.

So it’s quite a stretch to argue that the Post’s modest-at-best contributions to uncovering the Watergate scandal makes its aging headquarters building especially “significant,” historically. (The newsroom certainly was made famous in All the President’s Men,  the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. A replica of the Post newsroom was built for the movie at a studio in Los Angeles.)

The DCist blog had a bit of fun with the Business Journal report about prospective landmark status for the Post’s headquarters.

The building “has certainly seen its share of history,” the blog noted, “from the Pentagon Papers to the downfall of President Richard Nixon to Janet Cooke’s profile work to that time Dan Zak wrote about August.”

The Post and the New York Times were enjoined by the Nixon administration in 1971 from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — an injunction the Supreme Court invalidated in a 6-3 decision.

Janet Cooke was the Post reporter whose front-page story about an 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The newspaper surrendered the Pulitzer following disclosures that Cooke made up the story.

And Zak’s essay about August appeared in the Post last July 31. It included this passage:

“August is for avoiding thought. August is for thinking about August. August is for reading essays assaying the meaning of August’s meaningless.”


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The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

News that the Washington Post is exploring the sale of its headquarters building inevitably stirred reminders of the Watergate scandal, supposedly the newspaper’s most memorable exposé.

The Wall Street Journal makes that link in an article today while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

wapo-logo“The Washington, D.C., newsroom where two reporters took down a president may soon be on the block,” the Journal states, referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on America’s greatest political scandal.

While it may make for a catchy “lede” (journalese for a story’s opening paragraph), the reference to the reporters who “took down a president” is wrong-headed: It’s a media myth that simplifies and distorts the forces and factors that led Nixon to quit in disgrace.

Even principals at the PostWoodward among them — have asserted over the years that the newspaper did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. And they weren’t indulging in false modesty in saying so. (Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once said, for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

And as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “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.

Nixon quits

‘Nixon got Nixon’

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So why does the mediacentric heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate live on? Why is it so tempting to invoke, as the Journal does today?

Explanations go well beyond a reporter’s need for a catchy lede.

An especially compelling reason for the myth’s tenacity is that it makes accessible and understandable the intricate scandal that was Watergate.

That complexity —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 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.

What does stand out, though, is the heroic-journalist meme — the appealing if misleading notion that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought Nixon down.

It’s history lite, history made simple.

The myth is endlessly reassuring for journalists, too, suggesting as it does that journalism can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also one of journalism’s self-sustaining tales, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates quite well today.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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London’s ‘Independent’ latest to invoke media myth about Pentagon and Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on January 28, 2013 at 7:40 am

In the debate about women being permitted to join U.S. military combat units, it was inevitable the media myth would resurface about Jessica Lynch and her purported battlefield heroics in Iraq nearly 10 years ago.

The myth has it that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s having fought fiercely in an ambush in Nasiriyah and fed the propaganda to a credulous U.S. news media.

Sure enough, Britain’s Independent newspaper stepped in that myth over the weekend, in an online report about women in the U.S. military.

The newspaper referred to Lynch as a name fresh “in America’s collective memory” and asserted that “initial reports from the Pentagon exaggerated her 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 was an element of a Pentagon “propaganda war”?

Not so.Independent masthead

Not according to Vernon Loeb, the Washington Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in an electrifying but utterly inaccurate front-page story published April 3, 2003. Loeb has said the Pentagon wasn’t the source of the Post’s story about Lynch, which it pegged to otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”

Under the byline of Loeb and Susan Schmidt, the Post reported that Lynch, then  a 19-year-old Army private in a support unit, kept firing at attacking Iraqis “even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The Post quoted one anonymous official as saying that Lynch “‘was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’”

The story turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the attack at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the deadly ambush in which 11 American soldiers were killed.

Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported, but suffered shattering injuries to her back, legs, and arms in the crash of a Humvee in which she was attempting to flee.

She was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special forces team.

As Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the Post’s hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser).

The Post, though, has never identified the “U.S. officials” who led it so badly astray.

But we do know that the Pentagon wasn’t the source of the Post’s exaggerated hero-warrior tale: Loeb said so in an interview on Fresh Air, an NPR radio program, in mid-December 2003.

In the interview, Loeb declared flatly:

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

Loeb also said that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb declared, 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.”

Although Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain, the Independent is the latest of many news organizations to have ignored or overlooked them, blithely offering instead the juicy but unsubstantiated claim that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story.”

Lynch_large photo

Private Lynch

The claim is a weak one, even without Loeb’s disclaimer. After all, in the early days of the Iraq War, the Pentagon had little reason to exploit the Lynch case as a way to boost popular support  for the conflict.

As I point out in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong:

“It may be little-recalled now, but the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was widely supported by the American public. Polling data from March and April 2003, the opening days and weeks of the war, show an overwhelming percentage of Americans supported the conflict and believed the war effort, overall, was going well.”

Among those public opinion polls was a Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted in late March and early April 2003 — when Lynch was much in the news. The poll found that eight of 10 Americans felt the war effort was going well, and 71 percent approved of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq situation.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Women at the front: Recalling Jessica Lynch in Iraq

In Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on January 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm
Lynch: Accidental celebrity

Jessica Lynch in 2003

Jessica Lynch, who unwittingly became the best-known Army private of the Iraq War, has added her support to the Obama administration’s plan to end restrictions on women in Army combat units.

Lynch, whose purported battlefield heroics in Iraq proved to be a wild exaggeration by the Washington Post, told a Virginia television station the other day:

“For years women have been fighting for our freedom. They’ve been put in those roles anyway. Whether they are designed for a front line mission, they’re being put in those kind of roles and paths anyway.”

Given what she went through in Iraq, you’d be excused for thinking Lynch would have other views about women at the front.

Her authorized biography, written by Rick Bragg and published in November 2003, presents a disturbing account of her lone exposure to combat.

That came by mistake in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003, when elements of her support unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, made a wrong turn and plunged into Nasiriyah, a city under Iraqi control.

The heavy vehicles and Humvees of the 507th came under withering fire. Lynch was in the backseat of a Humvee, driven by her friend Lori Piestewa; they were trying to escape the Iraqi assault.

The biography, I Am a Solider, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, says this about the attack on her unit, and about what happened to her afterward:

“‘I just wanted it to be over,’ Jessi said. It had been about an hour since the battle began in the city of Nasiriyah, maybe a little longer.

“In fear and resignation, she could not look at it anymore.

“‘I lowered my head to my knees, and I closed my eyes.’

“Just ahead of them, Iraqi soldiers had used a truck to block the road. An American tractor-trailer rumbling just in front of Jessi and Lori’s Humvee came under heavy fire, and, swerving to miss the Iraqi truck, ran off the road just in front of them.

“In the mass of Iraqi fighters, one of them raised a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to his shoulder and sighted the speeding Humvee. He squeezed the trigger.

“Jessi, crouched in the back seat, her arms around her own shoulders, her forehead on her knees, did not feel the round that finally punctured Lori’s control and sent the Humvee bouncing off the road, straight at the five-ton tractor-trailer.

“The last thing she remembered was praying.

“‘Oh God help us.

“‘Oh God, get us out of here.

“‘Oh God, please.’”

The biography says Lynch blacked out in the crash:

“Jessi lost three hours.

“She lost them in the snapping bones, in the crash of the Humvee, in the torment her enemies inflicted on her after she was pulled from it. It all left marks on her, and it is those marks that fill in the blanks of what Jessi lived through on the morning of March 23, 2003.”

The biography (which Lynch has referred to as “my book”) says the Humvee crashed about 7 a.m. that day, “but Jessi and Lori were not taken to the hospital, a military hospital, until about 10 a.m. The hospital was only steps away — minutes away. Still, three hours passed.”

Lori Piestewa died of her wounds. Three other soldiers in the Humvee were killed in the crash or died shortly afterward.

Lynch, who was 19, suffered shattering injuries to her spine, right arm, right foot, and left leg below the knee.

“The records also show,” the biography says, “that she was the victim of anal sexual assault. The records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage, or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.”

(The allegation of sexual assault was disputed by an Iraqi doctor who treated Lynch at a hospital in Nasiriyah.)

Lynch was a supply clerk in the 507th and had entered the Army not expecting to see combat. The biography quotes Lynch as telling a friend, “‘Don’t worry. We won’t be anywhere near danger.’”

Lynch lingered near death at the Iraqi hospital before being rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Washington Post published an electrifying but thoroughly botched front-page account that said Lynch had fought heroically at Nasiriyah and that despite being shot and stabbed, she fired at attacking Iraqis until she ran out of ammunition and was captured.

In fact, Lynch suffered neither gunshot nor stab wounds.

She never fired a shot at Nasiriyah: Her weapon had jammed.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post  never fully explained how it erred so utterly in presenting the hero-warrior tale about Lynch. The newspaper cited otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” in its account, which appeared beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death.’”Lynch_headline_Post

The story was picked up by news organizations around the world and made Lynch — who never embraced the story — a household name in America.

The hero-warrior tale almost surely was a case of mistaken identify: The exploits the Post erroneously attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of Donald R. Walters, an unsung cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit.

Walters was one of 11 U.S. soldiers killed in the battle of Nasiriyah.


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Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

The Sunday “Outlook” section of the Washington Post usually is such a ZeroDarkThirty_posterjumble of thumbsucker essays and middling book reviews that it deserves just passing attention.

What made yesterday’s “Outlook” an exception was an engaging critique of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial new movie about the CIA’s years-long hunt for terror leader Osama bin-Laden.

The critique, written by former CIA official Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., suggests anew the mythmaking capacity of fact-based films. “Inevitably,” Rodriguez writes of Zero Dark Thirty, “films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality.”

And that’s especially troubling because, as Rodriguez also points out:

“One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways.” Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty emphasizes that it rests upon careful research, Rodriguez notes; at the same time, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, has insisted it’s “not a documentary.”

Carefully researched, yet with enough fictional or imaginative elements so that it’s no documentary: Such have been the ingredients of mythmaking by the cinema.

All the President’s Men offers a compelling example.

The hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

The movie version was fact-based, but certainly no documentary treatment of Watergate (even though the Post once referred to the film as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes“).

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie offers “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account of the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

The movie dramatized the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein while ignoring the far more decisive contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and Congressional investigative panels.

The omissions made for a cleaner storyline — and promoted a media-centric myth that not even Woodward embraces.

“To say that the press brought down Nixon,” Woodward once told American Journalism Review, “that’s horseshit.”

WordPress_FreshlyPressed logoAll the President’s Men was made in 1976 and remains the most-viewed cinematic treatment of Watergate –  a “proxy for reality” about how America’s greatest political scandal was rolled up. It’s Watergate simplified.

Rodriguez says in his commentary that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty get a lot right: Notably, they “portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon, rather than a sprint ordered by a new president.”

His principal concern is the movie’s depiction of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives. The interrogation scenes early in the movie “torture the truth,” he writes, adding:

“The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.”

I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty. But Rodriguez’s critique seems well-reasoned. He advises theatergoers to recognize “that Zero Dark Thirty is more than a movie and less than the literal truth.”

I’d shift the obligation somewhat, away from moviegoers: It behooves the makers of fact-based movies to stipulate that “fact-based” doesn’t mean factual, that even high-quality cinematic treatments simplify and distort.

Fact-based movies ought not be served up in effect as history lessons for the public.

These are hardly new concerns, of course. “Is it possible,” Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in an essay in the New York Times, “to have successful cinema and good history at the same time?”

Perhaps, Bernstein added, “the rule of thumb is this: When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification. Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well.”

Ideally, fact-based movies would be so compelling as to stimulate interest and curiosity, to encourage passive theatergoers to find out more about the subject, to conduct some research on their own.

Doing so isn’t always easy; but it can be an antidote to cinematic mythmaking.


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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2012

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, New Yorker, Photographs, Television, Washington Post on December 30, 2012 at 6:25 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2012 on the appearance of many prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the year’s five top writeups, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3): The 40th anniversary of the famous “napalm girl” photograph — one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — fell in early June.

NapalmGirl photo_AP

Nick Ut/Associated Press

In an obituary a few weeks before, the New York Times had referred to the photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children and claimed, erroneously, that it showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the aerial napalm attack that gave rise to the photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. I pointed this out in an email to the Times, noting that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time had made clear.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied, and offered some baffling logic in doing so:

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

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all relevant in the attack.

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

The Times resisted doing so until late August, when it issued a sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

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

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

hagiographic treatment of the “Cronkite Moment” (posted May 31): Few media-driven myths are as tenacious and desperately held as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

For years, journalists have sought to attach great significance to Cronkite’s assessment, even though it was thoroughly unoriginal and was, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, of little demonstrable impact. Even Cronkite, until late in his life, pooh-poohed its importance.

But all that scarcely deterred Douglas Brinkley from presenting in a hefty biography about Cronkite a decidedly hagiographic — and misleading — interpretation of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Brinkley offered little persuasive evidence in asserting that the “aftershock” of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, “was seismic” and “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”

In discussing the supposed “seismic” effects of Cronkite’s assessment, Brinkley wrote:

“Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.’”

But the Journal editorial that  said so was published four days before Cronkite’s broadcast. To cite the editorial as evidence of a “seismic” effect of the “Cronkite Moment” was certainly misleading.

What’s more, Cronkite’s characterization of stalemate in Vietnam hardly “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”  Public opinion polls indicated that the shift had begun several months earlier.

If anything, Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on Vietnam.

Uneven availability of WaPo’s online content about Jessica Lynch (posted April 27): On April 4, 2003, the Washington Post published a front-page report about an Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion the rescue from captivity of Jessica Lynch, a wounded, 19-year-old Army private.

That report ran to 1,500 words and is freely available at the Post’s online site.

The day before that article appeared, the Post published an electrifying but far more problematic story about Jessica Lynch — an account that claimed she had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner.


That article was published on the Post’s front page beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

It was a stunning report that proved wrong in all important details: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed; she did not fire a shot in the attack in Iraq. She was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee in attempting to flee.

But try finding the “fighting to the death” story at the Post’s online site.

Unlike the far less embarrassing report of April 4, 2003, the “fighting to the death” story is not freely available online. Clicking on the story’s URL opens what essentially is an empty link.

Also unavailable online are the scathing reviews of the hero-warrior tale published by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman in April and June 2003.

Such inconsistencies suggest a digital scrubbing of embarrassing content. I asked the newspaper’s incumbent ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about this matter.

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

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

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

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

He has not replied.

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth lives on (posted September 30): The run-up to the televised presidential campaign debates in October prompted numerous references to the purported lesson of the first such encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in late September 1960.

That lesson is about the presumptive power of the televised image: Supposedly, television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate in 1960 while radio listeners felt Nixon got the better of it.

This notion of viewer-listener disagreement has become an enduring media myth, even though it was thoroughly dismantled 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Dismantling, though, hasn’t destroyed the myth. The notion of viewer-listener disagreement remains hardy and irresistible.

For example, in the runup to the debates in October between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, wrote a column that recalled the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

“Listeners,” Neuharth said, “generally gave Nixon the nod. But TV viewers strongly favored Kennedy.”

And the Chicago Tribune declared that “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. … Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, had conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners. The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners felt Nixon prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.

But Vancil and Pendell, in their article in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, noted that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents, of whom just 282 had listened to the debate on radio.

They noted that “a subordinate group of 282 interviews is below the threshold normally required for a national sample.” Not only that, but only 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.

Given the shortcomings of the unrepresentative Sindlinger sample, Nixon’s supposedly decisive margin among radio listeners dissolves as meaningless — and renders viewer-listener disagreement a media myth.

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

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history. But as my research has found, the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

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

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

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

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested muddled thinking, gullibility, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His abbreviated presidential campaign never recovered from the self-inflicted wound; he ended his  run for the presidency at the end of February 1968.

Sealing the gaffe’s unforgettable quality was the supposed witty putdown by Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, a “light rinse” would have sufficed for Romney.

So telling was McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip that it “essentially finished Romney.”

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

A database search of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward.

The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.

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

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969 would have us believe.

American Melodrama described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

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


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Other memorable posts of 2012:

Media myth distorts Chicago Tribune timeline of newspaper history

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

The Chicago Tribune the other day published a timeline of American newspaper history over the past 50 years — a chronology tainted by the inclusion of a prominent media myth.

The Tribune declared “the daily paper remains vital to an informed citizenry” in presenting the timeline, which it said demonstrated “how newspapers expose — and occasionally commit — wrongdoing.”

The myth appears in the timeline entry for 1974, which says: “A corrupt U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is brought down by a newspaper, The Washington Post.”

Brought down by a newspaper.

Now, that may be the popular dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — that the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption that forced Nixon’s resignation.

But it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post embraces.

In fact, Woodward once dismissed such characterizations as “horseshit.” And for good reason.

As I discuss in a chapter in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate demanded the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term had it not been for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the telltale recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

It is interesting to note that the Post in its Watergate reporting did not disclose the existence of the Watergate tapes, nor did the newspaper identify or unravel the coverup of Watergate-related crimes.

To assert that the Post brought down Nixon is, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of this hoary media myth? Why does it persist, despite the evidence that can be arrayed against it?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

The Watergate myth, after all, offers a simplistic, easy-to-grasp interpretation of a scandal that was intimidating in its complexity: The web of misconduct that took down Nixon also landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

Media myths often spring from simplicity, from the desire for tidy and uncomplicated versions of history. Not only that, but the notion that the Post brought down Nixon fits neatly into a timeline.

A feel-good component buoys the Watergate myth, too: The myth affirms the notion that newspapers, beleaguered though they are, really can make a difference in American politics and in American democracy.

Which, itself, is something of a media myth.


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10 weeks on: Still no word from WaPo about apparent digital scrubbing of Lynch articles

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on July 6, 2012 at 7:45 am

Where’s the digital version?

The Washington Post ombudsman noted in a column last month that it is “increasingly difficult for iconoclastic, questioning voices to be heard, whether left, right or center.”

The ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, urged the Post and other news organizations “to seek out and cover the unconventional and outsider voices — whether citizen or expert, whether right, center or left. They’re out there; we just have to listen.”

Trouble is, Pexton, himself, doesn’t always much care for “questioning voices” — such as the questions that I’ve raised with him periodically for the past 10 weeks.

Those questions relate to the apparent digital scrubbing of the Post’s botched reporting about Jessica Lynch and her purported heroics early in the Iraq War.

The Post on April 3, 2003, published a stunning report on its front page (see above) about the supposed heroism of Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk, during an ambush at Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

The Post’s report said Lynch had fought fiercely and “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in the fighting, which took place March 23, 2003.

The electrifying report — which the Post headlined “She was fighting to the death” — was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But soon it became apparent that the Post’s hero-warrior story was utterly wrong in all important details. Lynch never fired a shot in Iraq; she was neither shot nor stabbed, as the Post had reported, but badly injured in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the ambush.

The botched hero-warrior story is unavailable at the Post’s online site. Until a few weeks ago, clicking on a link to that report did turn up the story’s headline, byline, and publication detail. But otherwise, it was an empty link: It contained no content.

Now, not even the headline, byline, and publication date are available. The link opens to a page that declares in large headlines: “Page Not Found” and “We’re unable to locate the page you requested.”

So changes recently have been made that expunge any reference to the hero-warrior story.

I pointed this out in an email to Pexton a week ago. He has not replied.

In his most recent correspondence with me, an email sent May 30, Pexton wrote:

“This is a stickier problem than I initially thought. It could be as innocent as the Post has moved masses amount of files three times in the past ten years to different servers. Or it could be deliberate.  …  I have one newsroom employee researching this and an IT person checking on it. When I have an answer, I’ll let you know.”

Pexton turned prickly in that email, making clear he did not appreciate my turning to social media to call attention to this matter.

He expressed objections to the Twitter message I sent on May 25, calling attention to a blog post of the same day that four weeks had passed and the Post had offered no explanation for the apparent scrubbing of the Lynch  content.

“Tweeting about your frustration over the time it is taking is a disincentive for me to push harder on it,” Pexton wrote in his email of May 30. “Most readers are polite and understanding. Why should I put your request ahead of others when you choose to coerce and bully?”

Coerce and bully? C’mon. My inquiries about the Lynch stories are much more akin to the “questioning voices” that Pexton has encouraged the Post to seek out and embrace.

More than five weeks have since passed he sent that prickly email. Pexton has offered no explanation as to why the Lynch content has been excised from the Post’s online site.

“I will get an answer for you if it is obtainable and I will let you know when I do,” he wrote on May 30. “That’s the best I can do. If that’s not to your liking, then I apologize but that is your issue, not mine.”

Woah. It’s not important to him whether the Post has scrubbed digital reminders of an acutely embarrassing story?

The Post, after all, called out Vanity Fair in April for digitally scrubbing a flattering profile of the wife of  Bashar al-Asad, Syria’s dictator. At that time, the Post described Vogue’s removal of the digital version of the profile as “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization.”

Interestingly, some Lynch-related content from 2003 remains freely available online — notably this article, at the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive.

I’ve asked Pexton: Would the Post and its readers not be better served by being consistent about its Lynch-related content?

And I have suggested to him that “my request can be distilled thusly:

“Why is some Lynch-related content from 2003 freely available online (see here), while content more embarrassing to the Post (see empty links here, here, and here) not available? Shouldn’t those empty links be restored, and added to the Post’s link-rich Iraq War archive, where Lynch’s name and image already appear?”

He has given no direct responses to those questions.

So what’s to be concluded, 10 weeks after my initial inquiry to Pexton?

Not unlike Vanity Fair, the Post appears to have scrubbed the digital reminders of an embarrassing misstep, of a high-profile story that the newspaper got utterly wrong.

It’s also pretty clear the Post has no interest in making freely available online its botched reporting about Jessica Lynch.

It’s pretty clear, too, that Pexton doesn’t eagerly follow through on his rhetoric about the value and importance of “iconoclastic, questioning voices.”


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

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Five

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

This is the last of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the
Democratic National Committee.
This installment address the often-stated claim that enrollments in college journalism programs in the United States
soared in the aftermath of Watergate.

Watergate made Gerald Ford president — and made journalism seem sexy

It’s a subsidiary myth of Watergate, that the reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post — made legendary by the cinematic adaptation of their book, All the President’s Men — turned journalism into glamorous and alluring profession.

So alluring and heroic were the depictions of Woodward and Bernstein as they, ahem, toppled a corrupt president that young adult Americans in the 1970s thronged to collegiate journalism programs.

A commentary last week in Post made just that point, declaring that the film had “inspired a generation of journalism school students.” Similarly, a recent essay at Gawker.com said the glowing accounts of Woodward and Bernstein’s work “helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession.”

But it’s a media myth that Watergate stimulated journalism school enrollments — a myth that endures despite its thorough repudiation by scholarly research.

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter confronting what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was much of a stimulus.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies as they would surely have reflected heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging j-school enrollments.

But the evidence just isn’t there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education” resulted “not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who have been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflects the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s authors, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly that “students didn’t come rushing to the university because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein ….”

A separate study, conducted by a senior journalism scholar, Maxwell E. McCombs, reported in 1988 that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972.”

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy lives on “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

Watergate’s presumed stimulus on journalism school enrollments is an attractive and simplistic construct, easy to grasp, and easy to remember.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to remember — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.


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