W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Getting It Wrong’

Five years on: The best of Media Myth Alert, Part II

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on October 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Media Myth Alert revisits its top-ever posts today in observing its fifth anniversary.

The blog went live October 31, 2009, and its objective was, and remains, twofold: Calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out in 2010.

This is the second of a two-part review of the 10 top posts published at Media Myth Alert, home over the years to more than 640 essays and commentaries. The top posts shared these elements: All were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all represented disclosures exclusive to Media Myth Alert.

■ Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19, 2011): It is sometimes said, erroneously, that bra-burning “never happened,”  that such reports were little more than hostile exaggerations by journalists.

Toronto bra burning_1979

Toronto, March 1979

Bra-burning never occurred?

Not quite.

Credible, first-hand accounts are cited in Getting It Wrong that bras and other items were set afire, briefly, at a women’s liberation protest at Atlantic City during the 1968 Miss American pageant. And in Toronto in March 1979, a demonstration was capped by a bra-burning, intended as a way to attract media attention. A photograph of the Toronto bra-burning is at right.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February 2011 with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper. I had doubts about its authenticity, given the periodic claims about no bras ever having been burned at a feminist protest.

The Toronto image, I thought at first, might have been faked — or unethically altered somehow.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said that “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police. (The report said that of 337 rapes investigated, 140 were “unprovoked.” The report also said “promiscuity” was a factor in many rapes.)

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-aware and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Toronto newspapers the next day reported on the protest — but did not mention the bra-burning.

Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in June 2014, Rachel Maddow wrongly accused the Pentagon of having “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim, made while revisiting at some length the hero-warrior tale about Lynch, an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

PFC Lynch: Fired not a shot

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and declared that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003. Lynch suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee in Nasiriyah. She was taken prisoner by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on the hero-warrior story — which was wrong in its important details — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

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

None of that vital context was acknowledged by Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case on June 3, 2014.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary was inspired by controversy surrounding the release a few days before of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out on her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was additionally quoted as saying.

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already published.

Thorp, then a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing — he was following. He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s story already in circulation and quickly gaining international attention.

I wrote in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that “it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story.” But Maddow ignored the Post’s exclusive role in pushing the botched Lynch story into the public domain.

The Post did so by relying on sources it has never disclosed.

It ought to.

Digitally scrubbing WaPo’s embarrassment on Jessica Lynch? (posted April 27, 2012): The Washington Post’s Watergate content from the 1970s is freely available and readily accessible online.

But try finding online the Post’s famously wrong reporting about Jessica Lynch’s derring-do in Iraq, notably the electrifying front-page report that appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

Lynch_headline_PostThat story — which said Lynch had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner — was in error in all important details. You won’t find it online at any Washington Post site. (The Post’s story is available in full at the online site of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Nor will you find freely available online the scathing reviews of the Lynch story published by the Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, in April and June 2003.

All of which suggests digital scrubbing of embarrassing content — conduct of the sort the Post criticized in 2012, in noting that Vogue magazine expunged the online version of a fawning profile of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Post at that time said Vogue had taken “an almost-unheard-of step for a mainstream media organization” and had committed “a generally acknowledged violation of digital etiquette.”

But had the Post not committed a similar “violation” in excising the digital reminders of the embarrassing Lynch case, a dramatic story that it had thoroughly and exclusively botched?

Rather looks like it.

I asked the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about the apparent digital scrubbing of the Lynch content.

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

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

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

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

He never replied before leaving the position in 2013, when his two-year term as ombudsman expired. He was not replaced.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4, 2012): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency in 2012 prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign memorable for an astonishingly clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most scathing putdowns in American political history.

But my research found that the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

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

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

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

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested gullibility, muddled thinking, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His run for the presidency never righted itself; he quit the race at the end of February 1968.

A witty putdown attributed to Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy ensured that Romney’s gaffe would remain unforgettable. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, all Romney needed was a “light rinse.”

So incisive was McCarthy’s quip that it is said to have “essentially finished Romney” as a candidate for president.

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

A search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward. (The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.)

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

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 claims.

American Melodrama, a hefty book published in 1969, described McCarthy’s remark as off-hand and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

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

Such vagueness invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. It also sounds a bit too perfect — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13, 2013):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post has moments of sheer arrogance.

This was apparent in late summer 2013, when the newspaper refused to acknowledge and correct an inarguably erroneous reference to Richard Nixon’s supposed “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The wrong-headed reference to Nixon’s “secret plan” 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

The Post’s obit of Thomas

The Post’s obituary was glowing and, as if to suggest Thomas’s impressive assertiveness, claimed that she once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

Trouble is, there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question, point-blank or otherwise.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. That’s probably what the obituary writer had in mind.

But Thomas had asked about Nixon’s peace plan, not a “secret plan.”

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

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

The obituary’s writer, Patricia Sullivan, said as much, telling me in response to an email query:  “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 Douglas Feaver, who had been designated the Post’s reader representative, a sort of ombudsman-lite position set up months after Pexton’s departure.

I noted to Feaver that if the Post could identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if the newspaper could back up the claim in its obituary, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing if 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, then, I wrote, a correction was in order.

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

How obtuse.

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary about Thomas, 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.”

Sure: Quickly and completely. Just as it did in its mistaken reference to Nixon’s “secret plan.”

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 22, 2014 at 2:42 pm

The death of Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, touched off  a wave of tributes that erroneously cited the newspaper’s central role in the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Bradlee, himself, had rejected the simplistic and mythical notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.

But as news spread yesterday that Bradlee had died at age 93, adulatory tributes poured in, many of them blithely invoking the media myth of Watergate.

USA Today, for example, said Bradlee “led” the Post’s “Watergate coverage that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The Los Angeles Times declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary about Bradlee stated that he “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.” (The print edition of the Times is less sweeping if not more accurate, saying Bradlee “presided over The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”)

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Similarly, the German news service Deutsche Welle said “Bradlee oversaw the journalistic investigation that brought down US president Richard Nixon.” (The new service also claimed the Post’s reporting “led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon”: Not only was the Post’s reporting a marginal factor in Nixon’s resignation, which he submitted before he could be impeached.)

And so it went.

Even the Post, which over the years had largely refrained from embracing the Watergate myth, went all in, saying on its front page today that Watergate was “a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting.”

The scandal, in fact, was touched off by a burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and investigative authorities quickly tied the crime to Nixon’s reelection committee and to White House operatives. Watergate hardly was “touched off by the Post’s reporting”; nor did the Post contribute significantly to the scandal’s unraveling.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s reporting failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It also failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, which were crucial to the scandal’s outcome.

Their existence was disclosed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In their book All the President’s Men, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, said they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

But according to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and thus missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

The Post went hagiographic in its editorial page tribute to Bradlee, describing him as “the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.”

The editorial continued, saying, “There was nothing like working for him …. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain ‘creative tension’ was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.”

And so on.

Surely it is not churlish to point out that the editorial failed to mention Bradlee’s greatest failure as editor — the fraud of “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that the Post published in 1980. The article was so compelling that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

But soon after the award was announced, it was revealed that Janet Cooke, the author of “Jimmy’s World,” had falsified key elements of the biography submitted to the Pulitzer board, claiming among other credentials a degree from Vassar and a command of six languages.

The exposure of those lies forced the Post editors to confront Cooke about “Jimmy’s World,” and she soon confessed to having made it all up.

The extensive back story to “Jimmy’s World” was reported by William Green, then the Post’s ombudsman, in 1981; his writeup is available here and, 33 years on, it still makes absorbing reading.

WJC

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The Wategate myth that offers something for everyone

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 27, 2014 at 1:47 pm

The heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate — the mythical and simplistic notion that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is one of those rare tales that commands appeal across the political spectrum.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon got Nixon

Conservative commentators sometimes invoke the narrative in bashing the news media as agenda-driven and untrustworthy. Left-wing outlets are known to embrace the meme as an ostensible example of crusading journalism that made a difference.

Both impulses were in evidence this week.

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, referred to Woodward and Bernstein during his show yesterday, saying they exemplified a tendency in American journalism to lust after career-shattering exposés.

“If you take somebody out,” Limbaugh said, according to a transcript of his program, “if you expose a fraud or a cheat — or if you just take out somebody that you don’t like who has a lot of power — if you as a journalist are instrumental in doing that, then you are considered worthy of advancement in that industry, and it’s best exemplified by Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein and getting Nixon, forcing Nixon to resign.”

Earlier in the week and across the spectrum, the New York Times profiled the Post’s new publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., and took the occasion to recall one his predecessors, Katharine Graham. She was, the Times article noted, the publisher during the Watergate period who “famously stood up to the White House and helped bring down a president.”

Left unsaid by the talk show host and by the Times was just how the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and Graham led to Nixon’s ouster in the Watergate scandal, which broke in June 1972 with a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Truth is, their work didn’t lead to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Or much contribute to his fall.

As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Watergate-era executive editor, once put it in referring to the secret White House tapes that demonstrated the president’s culpability in attempting to cover up the burglary:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Bob Woodward has said, in earthier terms:

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

Or as Katharine Graham herself said at the 25th anniversary of the Watergate breakin:

“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.”

Graham was quite right: Unraveling a scandal of the density and complexity of Watergate required, as I wrote in media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, subpoena power and “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.”

And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the White House tapes — the disclosure of which was made not by Woodward and Bernstein but by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, during questioning before a Senate select committee investigating the scandal.

The heroic-journalist trope is a simplified version of the scandal that cuts through complexities and intricacies to make Watergate accessible. It offers a narrative that’s appealing, memorable, and easy to grasp.

And it offers something for everyone.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

NYTimes Mag and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2014 at 3:46 pm

You might think that New York Times Magazine is so closely edited that it would avoid trafficking in media-driven mythsNYT_Twitter_Magazine_400x400.

A passage in the issue due out Sunday gives lie to such an expectation.

The passage indulges in the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal — the mistaken notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The passage says of Woodward and Bernstein:

“They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.”

That passage appears in an otherwise fascinating account of the unraveling of then-Senator Gary Hart in a sex scandal in 1987. The article, adapted from a forthcoming book by Matt Bai, offers a none-too-pretty portrayal of the journalism that exposed Hart’s dalliance with a model named Donna Rice.

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the article’s almost-casual reference to Woodward and Bernstein and their putative takedown of Nixon.

And that, quite simply, is a wrong-headed, media-centric interpretation of Watergate. It didn’t happen that way — as principals at the Washington Post itself have pointed out from time to time over the years.

In 1997, for example, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, Katharine Graham, declared:

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

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

In earthier terms, Woodward concurred, saying in an interview in 2004:

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

Woodward on another occasion complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.

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

We ought to take Woodward at his word.

But too often, the heroic-journalist trope proves too delicious and too handy to be resisted.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the trope endures because it represents an easily accessible, though quite misleading, synthesis of a scandal that was daunting in its complexity.

There are other important reasons the trope lives on. They include the impeccable good timing of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about their Watergate reporting; the popularity of the cinematic version of their book, and the years-long speculation about the identity of Woodward’s well-placed secret Watergate source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”All_the_President's_Men

The book came out in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was approaching its denouement with Nixon’s resignation. It reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list late that month — and remained there until mid-November 1974, three months after Nixon quit.

The cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men was released in April 1976 to mostly rave reviews. The New York Times critic wrote that “not until ‘All The President’s Men,’ the riveting screen adaptation of the Watergate book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has any film come remotely close to being an accurate picture of American journalism at its best.”

The film focused on the work of Woodward and Bernstein, ignoring and even denigrating the vastly more significant contributions of other forces and agencies in uncovering the scandal — federal prosecutors, federal judges, federal grand jurors, bipartisan congressional panels, and the FBI.

The book and its screen version introduced the shadowy, conflicted character known as “Deep Throat,” whose identity was the subject of not-infrequent speculation over the years. That guessing game had the effect of keeping Woodward and Bernstein “in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been,” I pointed out  in Getting It Wrong.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, identified himself as “Deep Throat.” Felt by then was in his early 90s and suffering dementia.

The book, the movie, and the years-long guessing game combined to help ensure the appeal and the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. As the passage in the Times magazine suggests, the myth lives on, erroneous shorthand for how Nixon fell in Watergate.

WJC

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Ouster of WaPo publisher prompts reference to newspaper’s mythical role in Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 2, 2014 at 10:11 pm

News that Jeff Bezos is ousting the publisher of the Washington Post about a year after he purchased the newspaper prompted recollections of the Post’s better days — recollections both exaggerated and erroneous.

A landmark?

Marginal on Watergate

The recollections centered around the newspaper’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago last month in the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

It was the Post’s onetime archrival, the New York Times, that indulged today in the most excessive overstatement.

In its initial online report about the departure of Katharine Weymouth as publisher, the Times stated that “she was the last major link to the Graham family, which had become a Washington institution and had presided over The Post’s most glorious era — the decades surrounding the Watergate scandal, in which it was instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”

While Weymouth’s departure, effective October 1, is intriguing — it means that Bezos, the multibillionaire founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is imposing his will on what has become in recent years a thin and faded newspaper — Media Myth Alert is most interested in the mischaracterization of the Post’s role in Watergate.

The newspaper assuredly was not, as the Times claimed, “instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”

The Post’s investigative reporting on Watergate linked Nixon’s reelection committee to the seminal crime of Watergate, the foiled burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The Post also implicated the likes of John Mitchell, the former attorney general who was Nixon’s campaign manager, in the scandal.

Such reports helped the Post win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But they were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency.

Indeed, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s contributions in reporting on the unfolding scandal in 1972-73 were “modest, and certainly not decisive.”

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

And even then, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal were it not for the audiotapes he surreptitiously made of many conversations in the Oval Office. Only when compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the tapes that clearly depicted him as taking an active role in plotting the coverup of the Watergate breakin.

Interestingly, it was not reporters for the Post but investigators for a select committee of the U.S. Senate who learned of and forced the disclosure about the existence of the tapes. It was, in other words, a pivotal Watergate story that the Post missed.

The Post lagged on other decisive Watergate stories, notably the existence of the White House coverup of the breakin.

And the story that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, still say they are most proud of was in error on crucial details.

WaPo front_Oct10_72

Washington Post, October 10, 1972

That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — erroneously — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates mounting challenges to Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda disputed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”

So “modest at best” aptly characterizes the Post’s contributions in unraveling Watergate.

The newspaper most certainly did not bring down Nixon.

The departure of Weymouth, and her replacement by Frederick J. Ryan Jr., once an official in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, was accompanied by another interesting sidebar: That of Bezos’ refusal to discuss the move with a reporter for the Post.

As Huffington Post observed:

“Bezos kept up a dubious practice of refusing comment to the journalists he pays when it was announced … that he had replaced the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, with former Politico executive and Reagan administration official Fred Ryan. … Anybody expecting openness and transparency from Bezos, however, would be disappointed, as the Post’s own story made clear.”

The Post’s article said the statement by Bezos announcing the change in publishers “‘did not give reasons for the change or its timing. Bezos declined to comment through a spokesman.”

How clumsy.

WJC

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Confronting the mythology of Watergate

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I plan to call attention to prominent media myths of Watergate during a panel discussion in Montreal this afternoon, three days shy of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in America’s gravest political scandal.

AEJMC 2014 panel_flier3The venue is the annual conference of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and other panelists include Max Holland, author of the well-received Watergate book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, and my colleague at American University, John C. Watson, author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.

Moderating the panel — titled “Beyond the Mythology of Watergate” — will be Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland and author of the award-winning Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

I intend to discuss the dominant narrative of Watergate — the mythical notion that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate crimes of Nixon and forced his resignation.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The trope is endlessly appealing to journalists and has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate. It is, after all, a handy proxy for grasping the essence of Watergate — Nixon resigned because of criminal misconduct — while avoiding the scandal’s mind-numbing complexity.

The many layers of  Watergate — the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not easily understood or readily recalled these days. The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

Hence, the enduring appeal and tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. It’s history lite, history made accessible, history made simple.

As I plan to point out today, the disclosures by Woodward and Bernstein about the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972 weren’t nearly enough to force the president’s resignation. And the decisive revelations of Watergate — among them the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — weren’t the work of the Washington Post.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term in office if not for the Watergate tapes, which clearly showed him approving a cover-up of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.Getting It Wrong_cover

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

The movie in fact ignores and even denigrates the work of other agencies and actors in the many-tenacled investigations of Watergate.

But why, some observers might ask, do Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein, still matter after 40 years? Why does anyone much care?

They care because Woodward and Bernstein are living reminders of the unmasking of America’s greatest political scandal — one that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Woodward and Bernstein are septuagenarians but they speak eagerly about their salad days, especially on occasions presented by the anniversaries of Watergate. The Post brought them together last week for what turned out to be a surprisingly boring look back at Watergate. That tedious program notwithstanding, their saga remains an appealing parable — that dogged and imaginative reporting can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change.

They very much are the heroic faces of Watergate, the journalists who saved us from Nixon.

WJC

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WaPo now embracing the dominant myth of Watergate?

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

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

Nixon resigns_1974

Not the Post’s doing: Nixon resigns, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But of late, such myth-avoidance has slipped.

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

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

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

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

Watergate marker_cropped

The marker with the error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s wrong.

WJC

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The Remington-Hearst media myth invoked anew

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on June 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

One of American journalism’s most persistent myths – William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish” or otherwise bring about war with Spain in the late 1890s — has made a fresh appearance, this time in remarks by radio show host Thom Hartmann.

Remington, Davis in Cuba

The stuff of myth

According to excerpts posted online by the NewsBusters site, Hartmann last week invoked Hearst’s vow as if it were genuine, asserting that Hearst “famously sent the telegram to Frederic Remington down in Cuba saying, ‘Get me the pictures, I’ll give you the war,’ for the Spanish-America War.”

Hartmann added: “And Remington supplied the pictures and, or at least the drawings of the, what was it, the USS Maine?” (A YouTube link to the program is available here; see time stop 12:52.)

As with all media myths, this one has some historically accurate scaffolding. But there is no evidence that Hearst ever sent such a telegram, or that he ever made such a war-mongering vow.

The back story to the myth is that Remington, a famous artist of the American West, was sent to Cuba on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. He arrived Havana in January 1897 — 15 months before the  destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor.

Remington spent six days on the island, drawing sketches of the rebellion that the Spanish authorities then ruling Cuba were trying without great success to put down. Remington left by passenger steamer on January 16, 1897, and reached New York four days later.

At the time, the Cuban rebellion was an important ongoing story in leading U.S. newspapers and Remington’s sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s Journal.

Before leaving Cuba, Remington supposedly sent Hearst a cable, stating: “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

In reply, Hearst supposedly told Remington:

Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.

The purported vow to “furnish the war” is at the heart of the media myth. It is one of the most familiar lines in American journalism, and it may be the most-quoted comment attributed to Hearst.

But as I discuss in the first chapter of my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal.

Reasons for saying so are many.

For starters, Hearst denied having sent such a message and Remington, apparently, never discussed it. The artifacts — the telegrams — have never turned up.

What’s more, Spanish authorities who controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic, surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary and meddlesome cable, had it been sent. It is very unlikely that the telegrams, had they been sent, would have flowed freely and uninhibited from Hearst in New York to Remington in Havana.

Not only that, but the myth endures despite “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency,” as I described it in Getting It Wrong.  That is, it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” (or, as Hartmann put it, “give you the war”) because war – the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Given the context of Remington’s assignment, Hearst’s purported vow is illogical and incongruous.

(The Cuban rebellion gave rise to the Spanish-American War in April 1898.)

In addition, the correspondence of Richard Harding Davis gives lie to the Remington-Hearst anecdote.

Davis was a prominent writer and journalist who traveled with Remington on the assignment to Cuba (see image, above).

Davis frequently wrote letters to his family, especially to his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis. And his correspondence made clear that Remington did not leave because they had found “everything … quiet” in Cuba.

In fact, on the day before Remington left Cuba for New York, Davis wrote:

“There is war here and no mistake.”

More important, Davis’ letters say that Remington left for home not on the pretext that “everything is quiet” but because Davis wanted him to go.

“I am as relieved at getting old Remington to go as though I had won $5000,” Davis wrote to his mother on January 15, 1897. “He was a splendid fellow but a perfect kid and had to be humored and petted all the time.”

Davis added that he “was very glad” Remington left “for he kept me back all the time and I can do twice as much in half the time.”

In other letters, Davis said Remington left because he had all the material he needed for his sketches and because Remington was fearful of crossing Spanish lines to meet up with the Cuban rebels, which had been the plan.

Moreover, the provenance of the anecdote is quite dubious. It was first recounted in print in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a self-important, cigar-chomping journalist known to indulge in hyperbole.

Creelman mentioned the anecdote without documentation — without saying how or where he had heard about it. At the time of the purported exchange between Remington and Hearst, Creelman was neither in Cuba nor in New York, but in Spain, on assignment to the Continent for the New York Journal.

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman: self-important

Additionally, Creelman presented the “furnish the war” tale not to condemn Hearst but to praise him. Creelman wrote in his memoir that the anecdote demonstrated how Hearst’s activist “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events.

Over the years, the anecdote’s original intent has been lost and the purported vow has taken on sinister overtones. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, it now has “unique status” in American journalism “as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings.”

And as Hartmann’s remarks suggest, the anecdote remains impressively resilient.

WJC

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

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

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

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

Watergate marker_cropped

Melt it down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He always told rather less than he knew.”

WJC

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‘Bras were never burned at ’68 Miss America Pageant’? Might want to check that, ‘Time’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers on June 13, 2014 at 11:47 am

Call it a counter myth. Or a triumph of narrative over evidence.

Or maybe just plain wrong.

bra-burning_freedomtrashcan

At the Freedom Trash Can, 1968

Whatever it is, the common interpretation is that women’s liberation advocates burned no bras at their famous demonstration at Atlantic City in September 1968.

They may have had what Robin Morgan, their organizer, called a “symbolic bra-burning,” as a way to protest that year’s Miss America pageant; but the undergarments themselves were not set afire.

The latest to embrace this narrative is Time magazine, which posted a commentary online yesterday that declared:

“Bras were never burned at the 1968 Miss America protest ….”

The commentary, written by filmmaker Jennifer Lee, further stated:

“Bras were just one of the items protestors were encouraged to bring that day that signified how the male-dominated culture was keeping women locked into rigid ideas of beauty, but they weren’t burned. … Misinformation and myths sometimes serve as placeholders in our memory when facts are not remembered.”

The commentary ignores evidence offered in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that bras were set afire, if briefly, at the Atlantic City demonstration, which was organized to denounce Miss America as a “degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie symbol” that promoted a “Madonna Whore image of womanhood.”

The evidence presented in Getting It Wrong about bra-burning at Atlantic City is from two witness accounts — one of which was published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, on September 8, 1968, the day after the protest.

That story appeared beneath the byline of a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher and carried the headline:

“Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.”

The article referred to a burn barrel that the demonstrators dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” and stated:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Boucher’s article, which appeared on page 4 of the Atlantic City newspaper, wasn’t particularly sensational. Its reference to burning “bras, girdles, falsies” appeared in the article’s ninth paragraph.

The article, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, “did not elaborate about the fire and the articles burning in the Freedom Trash Can, nor did it suggest that the fire was all that important. … Nonetheless, the passage stands as a contemporaneous account that there was fire in the Freedom Trash Can that day — a firsthand report” that typically has been overlooked or ignored.

In addition, the article’s description was buttressed by the recollections of the writer Jon Katz, who in 1968 was a young reporter for the Atlantic City Press. Katz was on the Atlantic City boardwalk the day of the protest, gathering material for a sidebar article about reactions to the demonstration.

Katz’s sidebar didn’t mention fire in the Freedom Trash Can.

But in correspondence with me, Katz stated:

“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.

“I am 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 …. It is my recollection that this burning was planned, and that a number of demonstrators brought bras and other articles of clothing to burn, including, I believe some underwear.”

So what’s the upshot?

Quite clearly, as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, Boucher’s article and Katz’s recollections “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend. … 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.” As the Time commentary did.

But I also noted that the witness accounts do not “corroborate a widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.” Spectacular and flamboyant the bra-burning was not.

Toronto bra burning_1979

Toronto, 1979

Another moment of bra-burning took place in Canada in 1979, when members of Women Against Violence Against Women demonstrated outside Toronto’s city hall. Near the end of the demonstration, a protester named Pat Murphy dropped a white bra into the hungry flames of a burn barrel (see photo, right).

That demonstration took place March 8, 1979, and coincided with International Women’s Day. It was aimed at denouncing a controversial report on rape prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

“The bra burning,” one participant recalled in a telephone interview with me in 2011, “was a way to entice the media as well as [offer] a critique of the police report.”

Interestingly, the Toronto newspapers covered the demonstration. But they did not mention the bra-burning.

WJC

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