W. Joseph Campbell

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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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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.

WJC

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.

WJC

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.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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