W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1968’

On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Quotes, Television on February 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

We’ll likely see a modest surge in the appearance of media myths in the next couple of weeks, with the approach of hallowed moments of exaggerated importance in media history.

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

The 60th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s program about the excesses of Senator Joseph M. McCarthy — sometimes called the finest half-hour in television history — falls in two weeks.

The media myth has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four years before.

In fact, Murrow was very late to take on McCarthy, and did so only after several other journalists had called attention to the senator’s excesses.  Notable among them was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist who began questioning the substance of McCarthy’s red-baiting accusations almost as soon as the senator began raising them.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow, in the days and weeks after his program about McCarthy, acknowledged that he had reinforced what others had long said about the senator.

Jay Nelson Tuck, the television critic for the New York Post, wrote that Murrow felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

But in the runup to the anniversary of program about McCarthy, we’re likely to hear far more about how Murrow was a courageous white knight, rather than a belated chronicler of McCarthy’s egregious ways.

This week brings the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” another mythical moment in television history that long ago assumed greater importance than it ever deserved.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared at the close of special report about the war in Vietnam that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the quagmire.

Cronkite’s observations supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pronouncement, the media myth has it, the president snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible tale which — like the Murrow-McCarthy media myth — is cited as compelling evidence of the power of television news and/or the remarkable sway of influential journalists.

Politico Magazine embraced the “influential journalist” interpretation the other day in recalling the putative “Cronkite Moment” in a lengthy, rambling essay.

The essay declared that Cronkite “had social weight. It seemed as if he spoke for the entire nation. Ironically, a country riven by war and social tensions had an elite that looked and thought about things pretty much the same way as Walter Cronkite.

“When Cronkite said the war [in Vietnam] was a disaster,” the essay continued, “many of them knew the jig was up. A month or so after Cronkite spoke those words, LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential election. As Johnson was said to remark to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’”

Except there’s little evidence that Johnson or other U.S. policymakers in 1968 were much moved by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observations.

By the time of Cronkite’s special report, “stalemate” was an unremarkable way of describing the war effort in Vietnam. The New York Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, including a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it,  the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Cronkite’s remarks about “stalemate” in Vietnam had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to run for reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s diminished political support within the Democratic party. By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And Johnson may have decided well before then against seeking another four-year term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that long before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light about Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence also is scant that Cronkite’s program had much influence on popular opinion. Indeed, polls had detected shifts in sentiment against the war in Vietnam months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary. Which means the anchorman was following rather than precipitating shifts in public opinion.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.

Murrow

Murrow

They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch's] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch_headline_Post

Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.

Other memorable posts of 2013:

Arrogance: WaPo won’t correct dubious claim about Nixon ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 13, 2013 at 8:44 am
A landmark?

Arrogant

Finally, after more than 2½ weeks, the Washington Post’s reader representative” replied to my email pointing to a dubious claim in the newspaper’s front-page obituary last month about journalist Helen Thomas.

The Post said in the obituary that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

I asked the obituary’s author, Patricia Sullivan, and the newspaper’s reader representative, Doug Feaver, to identify when Thomas posed such a question.

Neither has done so.

Instead, Feaver asserted in his recent email to me: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Talk about arrogance.

At issue here are two related matters.

One is the Post’s assertion in the obituary published July 21 that Thomas once asked Nixon about his “secret plan” for Vietnam.

The other is the broader notion that Nixon in 1968 ran for president saying he had a “secret plan.”

To the first point: There is no question about what the Post wrote. And there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon  about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. She did not ask about a “secret plan.”

Feaver in his email to me noted that the obituary did not place the phrase “secret plan” inside quotation marks.

As if that matters at all.

With or without quotation marks, the Post made a claim in the obituary that it hasn’t been able to back up.

Moreover, in asserting the dubious claim about a “secret plan,” the Post effectively has embraced the persistent but historically inaccurate notion about the 1968 election campaign.

That notion is that Nixon said he had a plan to end the war but wouldn’t disclose what he had in mind. Sullivan, the author of the Thomas obituary, has embraced this notion, stating in an email to me in late July:

“I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail. Hence it was dubbed his ‘secret plan’ to end the war, and is widely referenced as such in the news articles of the time, many of which I reviewed while writing this obit (in 2008).”

But that’s just not so: News reports of the time did not “widely” refer to Nixon’s having a “secret plan,” as a search of a full-content database of historical newspapers reveals.

The database covers 1968 and includes content of the Post and several other leading U.S. dailies. Searching the database for “Nixon” and “secret plan” or “secret plans” produces no evidence at all to support the notion that Nixon in 1968 touted or otherwise campaigned on a “secret plan.”

Likewise, the leading book-length treatments of the 1968 presidential campaign — Theodore White’s The Making of a President, 1968, and Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President say nothing about Nixon’s “secret plan.” (Searching the books’ contents through Amazon.com turned up no reference to “secret plan.”)

Had the purported “secret plan” been an issue of any consequence during the 1968 campaign, the country’s leading newspapers and those books about the election surely would have discussed it.

It should be noted that Nixon was asked publicly in late March 1968 about a “secret plan” for Vietnam. He replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments were made a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

So the challenge to the Post remains: If it can identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan,” please do so. That would represent a modest but interesting contribution to historians’ understanding of Nixon’s 1968 campaign pledges about the Vietnam War. It would suggest that journalists at the time were openly suspicious about his prospective war policy.

If, on the other, the Post cannot back up the “secret plan” claim — a claim clearly stated in its obituary — then a correction should be made.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

More from Media Myth Alert:

WaPo, Bezos, and owning up to errors ‘quickly and completely’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 6, 2013 at 7:02 am

Yesterday’s stunning news that billionaire Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post for $250 million came with a sidebar of sorts — his smoothly written and reassuring letter to the newspaper’s employees.

Jeff_Bezos_2005

Jeff Bezos, buying WaPo

Among other sentiments, Bezos, who has never been a journalist, wrote:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

In seeking to fulfill the objective of owning up to errors, the Post can make a start by correcting, or clarifying, a suspect claim embedded in its obituary last month about longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas.

The Post said in the obituary that Thomas had once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

No sourcing was given for that assertion, which was intended to suggest how Thomas and her “pointed queries often agitated the powerful.”

In fact, there appears to be no evidence that Thomas ever asked Nixon about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

The nearest approximation to Thomas’s having posed such a question came on January 27, 1969, when she asked Nixon at a White House news conference:

“Mr. President, what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” She did not ask about a secret plan.

This is more than hair-splitting. It matters because a fairly tenacious media myth has grown up around the notion that Nixon in 1968 campaigned for the presidency while touting a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War.

That claim is made rather often, despite its being historically inaccurate.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, leading newspapers in 1968 made almost no reference at all to Nixon and a “secret plan.” In an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late March 1968, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for ending the war.

The article further quoted Nixon as saying:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments came a few days before Johnson’s surprise announcement that he would not seek reelection.)

I’ve pointed all this out to the author of the obituary, Patricia Sullivan, and to the newspaper’s “reader’s representative,” Doug Feaver, but neither correction nor clarification has been forthcoming.

In fact, Feaver has made no reply to separate email I sent to him on July 24 and July 31.

As I told Feaver, if the Post can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon “point-blank” about having a “secret plan” on Vietnam, then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. More specifically, it would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

But if, on the other hand, the Post cannot identify such an occasion, then a correction seems in order.

Instead of responding, or writing a correction, the Post has been stonewalling.

That’s not at all the sort of response that Bezos has encouraged at Amazon.com, the online retailer he founded in the mid-1990s. Bezos has long sought to position Amazon as “the world’s most consumer-centric company.”

Bezos’ letter to Post employees hinted at the importance he attaches to customer-centrism. The letter said in part that the newspaper’s “touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about … and working backwards from there.”

I’d be surprised if Bezos, who as owner will not run the paper, did not seek to instill a greater sense of customer service at the Post. I’d be even more surprised if the Post’s famously arrogant newsroom eagerly embraced such an objective.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Correction or clarification needed in WaPo reference to Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post on July 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm
WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

Portion of WaPo’s front-page obit about Thomas

The Washington Post needs to correct or clarify a questionable claim in its recent glowing obituary about journalist Helen Thomas.

The obituary stated that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

I have asked the obituary’ author, Patricia Sullivan, when and where Thomas posed such a question, but Sullivan has not offered a direct reply.

As noted in a Media Myth Alert post on Sunday, the nearest reference I could find to Thomas’ having raised such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. According to a transcript the Post published the following day, Thomas asked:

“Mr. President, what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” She did not ask about a secret plan.

The issue here is larger than a likely error in a front-page obituary.

The more important issue centers around the notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 saying he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. That notion is historically imprecise. Yet it circulates still, as evidence supposedly of Nixon’s duplicity.

There’s better evidence of his duplicity than the “secret plan” chestnut. Simply put, Nixon did not tout a “secret plan” for Vietnam during his 1968 campaign.

I sent Sullivan an email a week ago (when the obituary was posted online), asking when and where Thomas had questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” Five days later, Sullivan replied by email, saying:

“I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail. Hence it was dubbed his ‘secret plan’ to end the war, and is widely referenced as such in the news articles of the time, many of which I reviewed while writing this obit (in 2008).”

I sent Sullivan a follow-up email, asking again when and where Thomas questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” She has not replied to that query.

Meantime, I consulted a database containing full-text content of leading U.S. daily newspapers, and found almost no reporting in 1968 and early 1969 about Nixon’s having, or claiming to have, a “secret plan.”

The combined search terms “Nixon,” “secret plan” and “Vietnam” produced only three returns — an advertisement taken out by Democrats,  an article about Nelson Rockefeller’s plans to run for president, and a brief wire service item in the Post that quoted a Democratic congressman as urging Nixon to discuss his “secret plan” on Vietnam. The search period was January  1, 1968, through February 1, 1969, a time span covering the 1968 campaign, Nixon’s inauguration, and his news conference in late January 1969. Newspapers in the database include the New York TimesLos Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street  Journal, and the Washington Post.

Searching the same period for “Nixon,” “secret plans” and “Vietnam” produced one return, an article published in the Los Angeles Times in which Nixon insisted he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for ending the war.

The article further quoted Nixon as saying:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments came a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.).

The database search makes clear that Nixon’s having a “secret plan” was not, contrary to Sullivan’s claim in her email, “widely referenced” in news articles at that time.

Additionally, neither The Making of the President 1968  nor The Selling of the President – major book-length treatments about the 1968 presidential election — contain the phrase “secret plan” or “secret plans.” (Neither phrase turned up in applying the Amazon.com “search inside” feature to those books.)

If Sullivan can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon “point-blank” about having a “secret plan” on Vietnam, then that would represent an interesting if modest contribution to our understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists then suspected he was less than candid and forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, Sullivan cannot identify such an occasion, then a correction seems in order.

As I say, the Post’s obituary was glowing, so glowing it took until the 12th paragraph to mention Thomas’ anti-Semitic remarks in 2010 — hateful words that effectively ended her career.

A far more searching and clear-eyed assessment of Thomas and her journalism was offered in Jonathan S. Tobin’s essay for Commentary magazine.

“Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw,” Tobin wrote, referring to her anti-Semitic comments. “It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational.”

Thomas, he wrote, deserves a “share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.”

Indeed.

WJC

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WaPo, Helen Thomas, and Nixon’s ‘secret plan’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on July 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

Today’s Washington Post carries a lengthy obituary about Helen Thomas, lauding the 92-year-old former White House reporter who died yesterday for her “unparalleled experience covering the presidency.”

A glowing tribute to Helen Thomas

WaPo’s glowing tribute to Helen Thomas

What caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the Post’s unsourced claim that Thomas had once asked President Richard M. Nixon “point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.” I sent an email yesterday to Patricia Sullivan, author of Thomas obituary, asking about the unsourced claim; she has not replied.

The only proximate reference I could find to Thomas’s having posed such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. Given her seniority, Thomas was granted the first question.

“Mr. President,” she asked, “what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” Peace plan, not secret plan.

According to a transcript of the news conference that the Washington Post published the following day, Nixon focused his response on the Vietnam peace talks then underway in Paris.

The issue here is greater than a possible error in a glowing tribute — so glowing that the obituary waits until the 12th paragraph to mention Thomas’ ugly remarks about Jews, which ended her career in 2010.

The notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War is a hoary assertion that circulates still, often invoked as telling evidence of Nixon’s duplicity. The claim is of thin grounding.

Helen Thomas embraced the tale, though, writing in her wretched 2006 book, Watchdogs of Democracy?:

“Throughout that campaign in 1968 … Nixon said he had a ‘secret’ plan to end the war. Reporters never got to ask him what it was. Not until he got into the White House did we learn it was Vietnamization — to try to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.”

But Nixon was asked during the campaign whether he had a secret plan to end the war.  According to a report published by the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s comments were made a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

A fairly detailed assessment of the “secret war” tale was published in 2000 by William Safire, a columnist for the New York Times and a former Nixon speechwriter. Safire wrote:

“That sinister phrase — secret plan — has resonance to veteran rhetoricians and students of presidential campaigns. In the 1968 primaries, candidate Richard Nixon was searching for a way to promise he would extricate the U.S. from its increasingly unpopular involvement in Vietnam. The key verb to be used was end, though it would be nice to get the verb win in some proximity to it.

“One speechwriter came up with the formulation that ‘new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific.’ Nixon made it part of his stump speech, and the juxtaposition of end and win — though it did not claim to intend to win the war, but only the peace ….

“When a U.P.I. reporter pressed Nixon for specifics, the candidate demurred; the reporter wrote that it seemed Nixon was determined to keep his plan secret, though he did not quote Nixon as having said either secret or plan. But …  it became widely accepted that Nixon had said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’”

The lead paragraph of the United Press International report to which Safire referred stated:

“Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon vowed Tuesday [March 5, 1968] that if elected president, he would ‘end the war’ in Vietnam. He did not spell out how.”

It does sound a bit slippery, a bit Nixonian. But it’s no claim of a “secret plan.” So there seems little substance to the notion, which Thomas embraced in her book, that Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the war.

WJC

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Cronkite report on Vietnam was ‘most influential TV show ever’?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Television on June 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

The most influential TV show ever?

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

It’s rather a thumbsucker, but it’s the topic of the “Big Question” feature in the June number of the Atlantic. And the responses, culled from TV executives, producers, and show creators, range from All in the Family, to the Simpson’s, to Saturday Night Light, to Walter Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam.

I always thought All in the Family was grating and repetitive; the Simpson’s predictable, and Saturday Night Light ever-erratic. But the Cronkite report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968?

The most influential?

That’s just wrong. Factually wrong.

The Cronkite program was proposed as “most influential” by John Langley, co-creator of the series Cops, who wrote in explaining his choice:

“Public opinion followed Cronkite’s assessment, leading President Johnson to observe, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

That assessment includes a couple of important errors, to be addressed in moment.

Some background, first: Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, went to Vietnam in February 1968, shortly after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched a surprisingly extensive but ultimately failed offensive across South Vietnam.

Upon returning to New York, Cronkite prepared a report about Vietnam, describing the U.S. war effort there as “mired in stalemate” and suggesting that negotiations could offer a way out.

In the supposed reactions to Cronkite’s report lurks one the most popular and enduring myths of American journalism.

As Langley writes, American public opinion supposedly followed Cronkite: Americans were swayed, supposedly, by the assessment of someone as trusted as Cronkite, and they likewise turned against the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s special report, knew his war policy was in tatters and purportedly uttered something to the effect of:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In fact, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before the Cronkite program: Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening doubts about the wisdom of fighting in Vietnam.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a plurality of Americans (47 percent) told pollsters for Gallup in October 1967 that sending U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. That plurality edged upward to 49 percent in a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

Journalists, moreover, had detected a softening of popular support for the war.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, reported that the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Wasn’t watching Cronkite

As for Johnson, he didn’t see the Cronkite report on Vietnam when it aired. He wasn’t in front a television set that night; he was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

And about the time Cronkite was intoning his pessimistic, “mired in stalemate” editorial comment about the war, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

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

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” was an appraisal that was neither stunning nor novel in late February 1968. U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to describe the war effort for months before the Cronkite program.

For example, the New York Times asserted in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

While the Atlantic’s “Big Question” had the intended effect of stirring debate and discussion, it wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the rankings issued last year of the “most impactful moments” on U.S. television of the past 50 years. Notably, none of the top 20 was an entertainment program.

The rankings were prepared from a survey conducted by Nielsen and Sony Electronics, and topping that list was coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the reporting of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and of the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdicts in 1995.

While dramatic, the Katrina coverage, was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the reporting on TV and in print “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

But few if any of the nightmarish accounts of violence, anarchy, and mayhem proved true.

WJC

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Ignoring nuance in the bra-burning myth

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Media myths on May 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

“Myths die hard.”

So says the latest issue of the Economist magazine, in an article that addresses the nuanced myth of bra-burning.

bra-burning_freedomtrashcan

At the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ 1968

Only there’s not much nuance in the Economist’s description.

“When a handful of feminists protested at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City,” the Economist says, “they burned no brassières. They did, however, dump a few (and make-up and high-heeled shoes) into a ‘freedom trash can,’ while also crowning a sheep.”

The syntax of that paragraph is certainly awkward. But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the assertion “they burned no brassières.”

And that’s not quite right.

As I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, there is compelling evidence that bras were indeed set afire, briefly, during a women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City.

That protest took place September 7, 1968, and denounced the Miss America pageant as a degrading spectacle. Demonstrators carried placards that expressed such unsubtle sentiments as: “Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie,” and “Miss America Goes Down.”

A centerpiece of the demonstration was what the organizers called the “Freedom Trash Can.” The Economist is correct in noting that high-heel shoes and other items were tossed into that converted burn barrel.

Bras went into the Freedom Trash Can, too. And according to a first-hand account published the following day in the Atlantic City newspaper, the Press, “bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines [were] burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can.’”

The Press account appeared beneath this headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

That account was endorsed by Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Press and who wrote a sidebar article about the women’s liberation demonstration.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire,” Katz told me in my research for Getting It Wrong.

“I am,” he added, “quite certain of this.”

Katz also said:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt.”

When the fire flickered out, Katz said, the police dragged the trash bin to the sand.

The reference to bra-burning in the Press article the day afterward as well as Katz’s recollections “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend,” I write in Getting It Wrong, noting:

“They represent two witness accounts that bras and other items were burned, or at least smoldered, in the Freedom Trash Can. There is now evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City.

“This evidence cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

However, these accounts do not support the much more vivid and popular notion that bras went up in flames that day, in a flamboyant protest on the boardwalk.

The witness accounts, I write, do not corroborate the “widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

And yet, as the evidence presented in Getting It Wrong makes clear, “bra-burning” is an epithet not entirely misapplied to the women’s liberation demonstration at Atlantic City.

WJC

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Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? ‘Salon’ dials up a media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Television on May 14, 2013 at 6:48 pm

The online news and commentary site Salon today invokes the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 in mulling TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced criticism last night about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Salon logoStewart’s remarks on his Daily Show are evocative, Salon declares, of “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” in which he suggested that negotiations could offer a way out of Vietnam.

Salon adds the media myth, stating:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon then injects a muddled caveat, stated parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”?

Simply put, the “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

And here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. About the time Cronkite was intoning his commentary about Vietnam, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age, saying: “Today, you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”
  • Cronkite’s on-air remarks had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced at the end of March 1968, not to seek reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s eroding political support: By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting intra-party challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. And Johnson may have decided well before then against another term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that well before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”
  • Cronkite for years rejected the notion that his on-air comments about Vietnam had had much effect on Johnson. The anchorman characterized his observations as akin to “another straw on the back of a crippled camel.” Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s commentary had much influence on popular opinion, either. Polls had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s on-air remarks. Which means the anchorman can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening disenchantment about the war.

What’s more, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s commentary — he also said the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” — was far less emphatic than the on-air remarks not long afterward by a rival network newsman, Frank McGee of NBC News.

On March 10, 1968, McGee declared: “The war is being lost by the administration’s definition.”

Lost: No hedging there about a stalemate.

Not only does Salon indulge in media myth, its commentary probably overstates the impact of Stewart’s segment about the scandals.

The comedian was hardly direct or unrelenting in criticizing Obama. His frustration was aimed primarily at IRS and the agency’s stunning recent acknowledgement that it had singled out conservative organizations for detailed scrutiny.

As such, Stewart’s remarks are unlikely to be remembered as much of a turning point in popular views about the Obama administration.

WJC

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