W. Joseph Campbell

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Vomit humor and scandal: Inane ‘Drunk History’ TV show promotes Watergate media myth

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 8, 2013 at 8:10 am

Drunk History, a new cable TV show based on the inane premise that history is entertaining when told by inebriated narrators, isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

Obviously.

Drunk History, which  debuts tomorrow night on DrunkHistory_logoComedy Central (the pilot is available online), features what the show’s  Web site says is an “often incoherent narration of our nation’s history.”

If the first episode is an indication, incoherent history makes for faint humor. Even worse, the inaugural show promotes a notably tenacious media myth in offering a chaotic look at the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

In doing so, Drunk History draws heavily, if erratically, on the 1976 film, All the President’s Men. The movie focused on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post — and was central to the rise of the myth that Woodward and Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

The movie as inspiration

The media myth of Watergate has helped make accessible to contemporary audiences a complex scandal that unfolded 40 years ago. But it’s an inaccurate interpretation; not even the Washington Post embraces it, as I point out in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

As Woodward said in an interview several years ago with American Journalism Review:

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

But back to the blurry first episode of Drunk History: Woodward is shown meeting “Deep Throat,” his secret Watergate source, in an underground garage in suburban Virginia. And he throws up on the source’s shoes.

Vomit humor: Now that’s inspired.

Woodward then asks “Deep Throat” — who was a senior FBI official named W. Mark Felt — for help in understanding the scandal.

“Put the pieces together, you dumbass,” Felt snaps. “It’s all in front of you. Do the work. Just be careful. Watergate is the tip of the iceberg.”

In the compressed Drunk History version of Watergate, Nixon soon realizes he has no choice but to resign.

“And in the end,” the narrator says, “you can toss aside Richard Nixon for all his cynicism, you can toss aside Mark Felt for all his cynicism, but you can’t toss aside Robert Woodward, and to a lesser extent, Carl Bernstein, for the truth that they exposed for America.”

That’s really not a bad touch, tweaking the pompous Bernstein for having had a “lesser” role in Watergate. Which is not entirely inaccurate, given that Felt was Woodward’s source. Bernstein first met Felt in 2008, shortly before Felt’s death.

“Well,” the narrator says, “we told the story of Watergate. There’s no way I could possibly misconstrue it as not the greatest journalistic endeavor ever told. Robert Woodward would be proud.”

Watergate was scarcely that.

Unraveling the scandal, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, 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 to cover up the seminal crime of Watergate, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.

So against the complex tableau of special prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions in unraveling the scandal were modest at best, and certainly not decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

In its tipsy way, Drunk History pokes at the conventions of documentary history, as the New Yorker has noted. Otherwise, there’s little to cheer about the show, which was a Web-based series before moving to cable. Whatever humor Drunk History projects isn’t likely to be sustaining.

A far more humorous send-up of Watergate — and of Woodward and Bernstein — is the underappreciated 1999 film, Dick. Although Woodward and Bernstein are not the central characters, the movie depicts them as antagonistic incompetents who bungle their way to a Pulitzer Prize.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Still hardy after 40 years: The myth that Woodward, Bernstein ‘brought down’ Nixon

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

Forty years ago today, a Senate select committee convened public hearings into the then-emergent Watergate scandal. The hearings stretched into the summer of 1973 and helped make “Watergate” a household term.

More important, the panel’s inquiry produced the disclosure that President Richard Nixon had secretly taped many of his private conversations at the White House — a revelation that was to prove decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

The most incriminating tape, released under Supreme Court directive in July 1974, captured Nixon plotting a coverup of the FBI’s investigation into the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington in June 1972.

If not for the tapes, Nixon likely would have remained in office — a wounded and hobbled president, but one who would have completed his term.

So the Senate select committee was vital in the array of subpoena-wielding forces that produced evidence that eventually compelled Nixon’s resignation.

And yet, on this anniversary, the simplistic, media myth circulates anew — that two dogged reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The latest to invoke what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate was the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Carol Rose, who declared in a commentary for Boston’s NPR station, WBUR:

“Nixon himself was brought down by two enterprising young reporters at the Washington Post and a whistleblower by the name of ‘Deep Throat.'”

Rose’s commentary, posted yesterday at the “Cognoscenti” page of WBUR’s Web site, focused on and rightly took issue with the Justice Department’s snooping into phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors in Washington, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut.

“Lest there be any confusion: This is a big deal,” Rose says of the Justice Department’s activity. (She also writes, “Dismantle the free press, and you pretty much dismantle democracy,” which probably is to put it backwards: A free press is a marker and byproduct of democratic government, not an essential precondition.)

But what most concerns Media Myth Alert is the blithely offered claim about the work of Woodward and Bernstein — those “enterprising young reporters” to whom Rose refers.

Simply put, Woodward and Bernstein did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their Watergate reporting for the Post as the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972 did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein were not central to the major disclosures of Watergate.

Notably, they did not reveal the existence of the Nixon’s tapes.

Nor did they describe the extent of the Nixon administration’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

Interestingly, authorities at the Post over the years have scoffed at claims that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting took down Nixon.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said 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.”

Woodward, himself, has pooh-poohed the notion, too. He once told an interviewer:

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

More delicately, Woodward said in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program that “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.”

As for the “whistleblower” Rose mentions, the shadowy “Deep Throat” source?

He turned out to be W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official motivated not so much by whistleblowing as by high-stakes, inter-office politics.

Felt wanted the FBI top job after the death in May 1972 of the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover. Leaking to Woodward (Felt never met Bernstein during Watergate) was a way to pursue those ambitions — and to undercut the official who was appointed acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray.

Felt was no noble figure. As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, he authorized burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins, but was pardoned the following year by President Ronald Reagan.

WJC

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‘All the President’s Men Revisited': A mediacentric rehash, with some insight

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm

The much-ballyhooed documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, was mostly a mediacentric rehash of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago. Even so, the show, which aired last night on the Discovery channel, managed to present insight into the forces that really uncovered the criminality of what was America’s gravest political scandal.

The two-hour program took a look back at Watergate often through the context of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

The movie, which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, idealized Woodward and Bernstein, identifying their reporting as central to uncovering the scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. The first hour of the Discovery program similarly emphasized that misleading interpretation, mostly through frequent snippets of interviews with the aging Woodward and Bernstein.

The inescapable impression was that their reporting was essential to spurring the federal and congressional investigations that ultimately produced tape-recorded evidence that showed Nixon conspired to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

That interpretation — that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting set the table for the crucial official inquiries — is favored by the Post (its Web site explains Watergate that way).

But  it is utterly misleading.

As serious historians of Watergate have demonstrated, federal investigators were far ahead of Woodward and Bernstein in their piecemeal reporting about the unfolding scandal in the summer and fall of 1972.

For example, Max Holland, author of Leak, a book about Watergate published last year, has aptly noted:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

What’s more, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas” by late October 1972, Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, acknowledged in an interview in 1974.

The most interesting segments of All the President’s Men Revisited were during the program’s second hour, when the federal and congressional investigations of Watergate figured prominently. At the same time, Woodward and Bernstein receded noticeably from the limelight, replaced by the likes of Alexander Butterfield, the former White House aide who disclosed that Nixon recorded his conversations in the Oval Office.

Butterfield’s revelation about the tapes came during a U.S. Senate select committee’s investigation into Watergate — and represented a decisive pivot in the unfolding the scandal. Nixon ultimately was compelled to surrender audiotapes that demonstrated his role in attempting to coverup the Watergate breakin. He resigned soon afterward.

Interestingly, All the President’s Men Revisited  made clear that Woodward and Bernstein did not break the story about the existence of the tapes — and pinned the blame on the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

Woodward recounted in the program (as he did in the book All the President’s Men) that he had heard about the tapes and asked Bradlee about pursuing a story along those lines. Bradlee, according to Woodward’s recollections, rated a prospective story about the tapes a B-plus: Not good enough for Woodward to pursue immediately.

(In the book, Bradlee is quoted as saying: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.” And the reporters didn’t, thus failing to report a pivotal story about the scandal.)

The program’s second-half focus on the federal and congressional inquiries in a way addresses a major flaw of All the President’s Men, the movie, which was criticized for ignoring the contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and congressional panels in ripping away the coverup of the Watergate break-in.

The movie’s narrow focus, I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, served “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate — the notion that the dogged work of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon.

While the program did not challenge the deeply entrenched heroic-journalist myth, All the President’s Men Revisited did offer an historically accurate interpretation about how the scandal unspooled: As such, it rather succeeded where the movie had clearly failed.

WJC

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Both left, right embrace media myth about WaPo and Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Curious thing about the media myth of Watergate: The notion that the Washington Post’s dogged reporting toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency is readily embraced both by liberals and conservatives.

FoxNewsSunday_logoThe most recent example of this tendency  came yesterday, on the “Power Player of the Week” segment of the Fox News Sunday program.

The “Power Player” segment featured Martin Baron, who’s been executive editor of the Washington Post for a little more than three months. It was a fair-minded look at a respected, veteran journalist; Baron was a top editor at the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe before joining the Post at the start of the year.

But whether Baron truly is a “power player” in Washington is speculative. What most interests Media Myth Alert was how the Watergate myth was blithely injected into the Fox News Sunday segment.

In his voice-over introducing the segment, the show’s host, Chris Wallace flatly and inaccurately asserted that the Post is “the paper that brought down Richard Nixon.”

It’s a not uncommon characterization. But it’s utterly exaggerated — and thoroughly undeserved.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, it’s an interpretation of Watergate that not even the Post embraces.

Some of the Post’s leading figures over the years have openly dismissed the notion that the newspaper’s reporting of Watergate ended Nixon’s presidency. (He resigned in 1974.)

For example, Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997:

Not the Post's doing

Not the Post’s doing

“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.”

In addition, the newspaper’s then-media writer, Howard Kurtz, asserted in 2005:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office — there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees … and those infamous White House tapes.”

If not for the tapes — the secret audio recordings Nixon made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office — Nixon likely would have survived the scandal.

The Post, by the way, did not disclose the existence of the tapes, which demonstrated that Nixon had sought to derail the FBI’s investigation of Watergate’ signal crime — the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The existence of the tapes — evidence that was so pivotal to the scandal’s outcome — was made known in July 1973 by Alexander Butterfield, under questioning by investigators of a Senate select committee.

There’s more to deplore here than a Sunday TV show’s puffing up one of its segments by declaring the Post “brought down Richard Nixon.” The Watergate myth is more insidious than that.

It is a disservice to history: The Watergate myth distorts and dumbs down what was the most significant American political scandal of the 20th century.

And it extends to journalists the unmerited status of having been heroic central actors in exposing the crimes of Watergate.

WJC

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10 years on: WaPo, Jessica Lynch, and the battle at Nasiriyah

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 23, 2013 at 5:45 am

Lynch_headline_PostThe first major battle of the Iraq War, the ambush 10 years ago today of an U.S. support unit, gave rise to one the most woeful moments in recent war correspondence — the Washington Post’s thoroughly inaccurate front-page report about a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Jessica Lynch.

The Post claimed that Lynch, a waif-like supply clerk who never expected to see combat, had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasiriyah, firing at attacking Iraqis until her ammunition ran out.

It was an electrifying report, conjuring as it did cinematic images of an improbable female Rambo.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch

As it turned out, it was one of those remarkably rare news stories that’s spectacularly wrong but reverberates long after its initial publication.

The Post’s article had the effect of:

  • turning Lynch, through no exceptional effort of her own, into the best-known U.S. enlisted soldier of the Iraq War
  • obscuring the heroics of an Army cook-sergeant who was captured, then killed, by Iraqis
  • prompting the rise of media myths that continue to distort understanding about what happened at Nasiriyah.

Ten years on and the Post has never fully accounted for its botched reporting. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so stunning that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

That story was published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

The Post said Lynch was shot and stabbed “when Iraqi forces closed in on her position,” and based its account on otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”

The story was reported from Washington, D.C.: No journalists were with Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, when its convoy of trucks and support vehicles made a wrong turn and mistakenly entered Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The convoy fell under attack and 11 U.S. soldiers were killed in the fighting. Among them was Sgt. Donald Walters, who had put down covering fire as his comrades tried to flee the ambush.

Walters was taken prisoner and soon after was executed by his Iraqi captors. So far as is known, his killers have never been captured.

It emerged months later that Walters most likely performed the battlefield heroics misattributed to Lynch, who never embraced the Post’s account.

The mistaken identity stemmed apparently from mistranslation of Iraqi battlefield transmissions.

The Post, though, never showed any interest in that aspect of the story — or in Walters’ bravery.

Sgt. Donald Walters

Sgt. Donald Walters

His name has appeared in only four news reports published by the Post, the most recent of which was an Associated Press dispatch in May 2004 which said “details of [Walters'] actions remarkably resemble a story circulated in The Washington Post and other news media, based on anonymous sources, describing how Lynch had fought until her ammunition ran out.”

The reference to “other news media” was misleading, though. It was the Post, alone, that thrust the hero-warrior about Lynch’s battlefield heroics into worldwide circulation.

It was the Post that said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” at Nasiriyah.

And none of it was true: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.

She never fired a shot in Iraq. Her weapon jammed during the fighting.

She tried to escape the attack in the back of a Humvee, her head lowered to her knees in prayer. The fleeing Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, sending the vehicle hurtling into a disabled tractor-trailer.

Lynch suffered shattering injuries to her arms, legs, and back in the crash. Four fellow soldiers were killed.

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch began unraveling in the spring of 2003. As it did, a toxic narrative arose that the Pentagon (or, more broadly, the “military“) had concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude and cynical attempt to boost public support for the war.

The narrative is perversely appealing — and utterly false.

Mythical, even.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, one of the authors of the Post’s botched hero-warrior story, Vernon Loeb, has stated unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.

In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb said:

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

Loeb said they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

Loeb made clear he that “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.”

Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain. But they’ve been mostly ignored.

We know from Loeb who the Post’s sources weren’t.

On the 10th anniversary of the battle of Nasiriyah, it’s high time for the Post to say who they were, to set the record straight and clarify at long last how one of the most memorable yet twisted narratives of the Iraq War came to be.

WJC

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Confused and illogical: WaPo commentary on effects of ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Washington Post on March 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

The Washington Post today offers one of the more baffling and illogical characterizations of the supposed effects of Walter Cronkite’s mythical report about Vietnam, which aired in February 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite’s assessment supposedly was so exceptional, so influential on American policy and politics, that it has come to be call the “Cronkite Moment.”

A commentary in today’s Post addresses that occasion in a broader discussion of hostility between the news media and the White House. In referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the commentary says:

“Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.”

How’s that? Johnson “did not see” the Cronkite report; even so, it packed such wallop that Johnson knew without watching that he had “lost Cronkite”?

Who’s editing this stuff?

Not only is that passage confused and illogical: It’s historically inaccurate.

Let’s unpack the passage:

  • Cronkite’s report was aired February 27, 1968, on CBS television. In closing, the anchorman offered the comparatively mild assessment that U.S. forces were “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — an assessment reflecting the conventional wisdom that had been circulating for months among the news media in Washington and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
  • Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report: When it aired, the president was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John B. Connally, a long-time political ally.
  • There’s no persuasive evidence or documentation that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement.  Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and such variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.
  • Nearly five weeks after Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war had nothing to do with Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection (see below).

In the days following Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war in Vietnam. In mid-March 1968, for example, he traveled Minnesota to deliver a rousing speech in which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

Johnson punctuated his remarks in Minnesota by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air. “We love nothing more than peace,” he declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” The president disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection stemmed from at least two sources: his health and his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.

There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967 or before, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency in part because of concerns about his health. “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, “I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

Johnson’s announcement not to seek another term came after insurgent Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy had won more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary on March 12, 1968, and after had Johnson nemesis Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic nomination on March 16.

Johnson, moreover, was facing near-certain defeat in the Wisconsin primary, on April 2, 1968.

Those were considerations weighing on Johnson on March 31, 1968, when he said he would not seek reelection. Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, were not a factor.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the purported “Cronkite Moment,” when scrutinized, “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Woodward ‘destroyed the Nixon presidency': More dubious history from Rush Limbaugh

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 1, 2013 at 7:21 am

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh was at it again yesterday, offering up the dubious interpretation that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting “destroyed the Nixon presidency.”

That’s a seriously exaggerated version of the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Not even Woodward embraces that interpretation, once telling an interviewer: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

(Woodward(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Woodward
(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Limbaugh’s remark about Woodward’s having “destroyed the Nixon presidency” came during a lengthy commentary about Woodward’s recent criticism about the administration of President Barack Obama.

Woodward has asserted that Obama proposed the controversial sequester plan — the automatic federal spending cuts that are to begin taking effect today.

What most intrigues Media Myth Alert is Limbaugh’s repeated claim that Woodward’s reporting was decisive in ending Nixon’s presidency. The talk-show host’s remark yesterday about Woodward and Nixon marked the second time this week he has made such an assertion.

On his show Monday, Limbaugh said flatly that “Woodward brought down Nixon” in the Watergate scandal.

The record, though,  is far more nuanced and complex than that: Woodward and his Washington Post reporting colleague Carl Bernstein played rather modest roles in unraveling the scandal.

Their reporting in the summer and fall 1972 progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the foiled burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — the signal crime of Watergate.

But by late October 1972, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, later acknowledged.

Significantly, Woodward and Bernstein did not break such crucial stories as the existence of Nixon’s audiotaping system at the White House. The tapes ultimately provided evidence that the president had obstructed justice by approving a scheme to deflect the FBI’s inquiry into the burglary.

The disclosure about the taping system came in July 1973, during a Senate select committee’s investigation into the unfolding Watergate scandal.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the payment of hush money to operatives arrested in the burglary — a key development in tying the White House to the Watergate scandal.

I discuss the media myth of Watergate in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, and write that the scandal demanded “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.”

What I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting brought down Nixon — stems in large measure from the 1976 motion picture, All the President’s Men.

The movie, an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book by the same title, concentrated on the  reporters and ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators and special prosecutors.Getting It Wrong_cover

The movie was critically acclaimed and widely seen. Its effect, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

All the President’s Men, the movie, promoted a simplistic yet readily accessible interpretation of the Watergate scandal that is often invoked — as Limbaugh’s recent comments suggest. But it is an interpretation that nonetheless is utterly wrong.

WJC

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If Obama loses AP: Rush Limbaugh embraces media myths two days running

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Rush Limbaugh attracts the largest talk-show audiences on radio. Which is why it’s troubling when he indulges in media myths, as he’s done the past two days.

THUMB_RushLimbaugh

Limbaugh

Program transcripts show that Limbaugh made clear if passing references to the “Cronkite Moment,” the 45th anniversary of which falls tomorrow, and to the hero-journalist myth that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Limbaugh on today’s program called attention to an Associated Press report that skeptically considered President Barack Obama’s claims of great disruption should federal government spending cuts, collectively known as the sequester, take effect beginning Friday.

Limbaugh, according to the program transcript, declared that “if Obama is losing AP on this, it’d be like Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite on the war in Vietnam.”

The reference was to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment, delivered February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite

Cronkite

Upon hearing Cronkite’s comment, Johnson supposedly understood that his war policy was in tatters and declared: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s program when it aired.

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. And at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president was making light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

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

So it’s hard to believe that the president could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

The importance of the debunking the “Cronkite Moment” goes beyond whether Johnson saw the program; far more significant is the anecdote’s deceptive message that a prominent journalist can profoundly alter policy.

Altering war policy certainly wasn’t the effect of Cronkite’s program 45 years ago. Even Cronkite likened the program’s influence to that of a straw placed on the back of a crippled camel.

Johnson did announce at the end of March 1968 that he was not seeking reelection to the presidency. But that decision had far more to do with his health and the prospect that Democrats would not renominate him than with Cronkite’s fairly tame and unoriginal commentary about Vietnam.

Limbaugh invoked Watergate’s hero-journalist trope in discussing the sequester during his program yesterday, stating flatly:

“Woodward brought down Nixon.”

He was referring to the supposed effects of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

But that’s a myth not even Woodward embraces.

Woodward: 'Horseshit'

Woodward

In 2004, for example, Woodward told American Journalism Review, “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And on another occasion, in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “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.”

Other principals at the Post have over the years similarly dismissed such outsize claims.

If not Woodward and his reporting sidekick Carl Bernstein, then who, or what, brought down Richard Nixon?

The best answer is that unraveling a scandal of the reach and complexity 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,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings” in 1974, making inevitable an early end to his presidency.

In the end, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was of faint consequence to Watergate’s dramatic outcome.

It merits mentioning that there’s no small irony in Limbaugh’s giving voice to these media myths.

He is, after all, a prominent conservative commentator and the “Cronkite Moment” and the Watergate myth center around journalists and news organizations commonly associated with liberal views.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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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.”

WJC

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