W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘McCarthy’

60 years on, CBS extols Murrow show on McCarthy as TV ‘turning point’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Predictably perhaps, CBS has recalled Edward R. Murrow’s mythical takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy 60 years ago as “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.

In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy and did so “only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.

The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”

In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.

So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer,  rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.

Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

McCarthy: Brutish

McCarthy: Brutish

But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.

In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

How so was left unexplained.

The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.

McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.

Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.

Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.

On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.

“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.

In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.

WJC

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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

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‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on July 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The “critic at large” essay in the latest number of the New Yorker includes references to my myth-busting latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite: His ‘moment’ wasn’t so special

The essay by Louis Menand is largely a searching review of Cronkite, the recent, so-so biography about legendary CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

Menand calls the book “long and hastily written.”

He discusses in detail the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the Vietnam War was stalemated supposedly was so powerful that it influenced American war policy and moved American public opinion. The Cronkite biography says as much.

But Menand scoffs at the notion the “Cronkite Moment” was very important at all, writing:

“The trouble with this inspiring little story is that most of it is either invented or disputed.”

He specifically refers to Getting It Wrong in dismissing the supposed effects of Cronkite’s pronouncement about the war — notably, that Cronkite’s assessment prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Menand notes that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report about Vietnam when it aired, pointing out that the president was in Austin, Texas, “attending a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally. … There is no solid evidence that Johnson ever saw the show on tape, either, though the White House did tape it.”

Further drawing on Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter debunking the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” Menand writes that even after Cronkite “stalemate” assessment, “Johnson’s speeches on Vietnam … were as hawkish as ever.

“Not only is there little evidence that the broadcast had an effect on Johnson; there is little evidence that it had an effect on public opinion.” And that’s certainly true.

Menand also notes that the author of the Cronkite biography, Douglas Brinkley, “implies that it was Cronkite’s commentary that emboldened the [Wall Street] Journal to criticize the war, but the Journal editorial appeared four days before the broadcast.”

The Journal’s editorial of February 23, 1968, said “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat [in Vietnam] beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The editorial was strong stuff. And it undeniably preceded Cronkite’s on-air assessment which, given the times, was tepid and unoriginal. Leading U.S. news organizations such as the New York Times, had taken to calling the war a “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program.

As Menand observes: “In 1968, you did not need an anchorman to know which way the wind blew” on Vietnam.

Menand’s essay also challenges the notion that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” dissecting a 1972 survey that rated the anchorman more trustworthy than the leading national politicians of the time. Not much of a comparison, that. As media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009, shortly after Cronkite’s death, the anchorman’s score in the survey “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Menand touches on Edward R. Murrow’s famous program in 1954 that addressed the smears and bullying tactics of the red-baiting U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. Menand notes that Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow’s televised assessment of McCarthy came “very late in the day.” By 1954, Menand writes, “McCarthy had been hunting witches for four years….”

He also offers a thoughtful and telling assessment about why media myths take hold.

“Journalism and history,” Menand writes, “are about getting things right. But the past has many uses, and one of them is to inspire the present. … More honorably, if not necessarily more accurately, we imagine our predecessors as nobler and braver than our small selves — as men and women who stuck up for principle and, by their righteousness, moved the world.”

That’s well said, and offers revealing insight about the tenacity of such myths as the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

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Further reason to pan Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom': It embraces media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on June 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

Aaron Sorkin’s preachy new HBO series, The Newsroom, has, deservedly, received some harsh reviews.

Among the most delicious of those critiques was the New Yorker’s observation that The Newsroom is “so naïve it’s cynical.” And the New York Times said that “at its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony.”

Naïve and sanctimonious: Two solid reasons to avoid The Newsroom, which presumes to offer a behind-the-scenes dramatization of a high-pressure cable news program.

Another reason to pan the show is its embrace of hoary media myths.

The embrace of myth came late in the first episode on Sunday, when Sam Waterston, who plays cable news chief Charlie Skinner, offers advice to Will McAvoy, the prickly and thoroughly unlikable anchorman played by Jeff Daniels.

“Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon,” Waterston/Skinner tells Daniels/McAvoy. “Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam.”

The references were to Edward R. Murrow, whose 30-minute program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter Cronkite’s 30-minute report about Vietnam in 1968 which is often but erroneously described as a turning point in America’s war in Southeast Asia.

Both tales are media-driven myths — compelling and prominent stories about the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as improbable or wildly exaggerated.

The Murrow and the Cronkite anecdotes are both addressed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in the book how Murrow was very late in confronting the McCarthy menace, doing so only months and years after other journalists had repeatedly directed attention to the senator’s bullying tactics and his ready use of the smear.

Among those journalists was Drew Pearson, an aggressive, Washington-based syndicated columnist who became a persistent and searching critic of McCarthy days after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in February 1950.

That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s scathing columns so angered McCarthy that the senator assaulted Pearson following a dinner party at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington in December 1950.

“Accounts differ about what happened,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

That encounter certainly would be fodder for cable TV.

In any event, by March 1954, when Murrow turned his attention to McCarthy, the senator’s character and tactics were quite well-known.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, Americans knew.

Cronkite’s report about Vietnam aired on February 27, 1968, and closed with the CBS News anchorman asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be the way out of the morass.

Those observations were supposedly so powerful and insightful that they have come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

In fact, though, Cronkite’s observations were scarcely novel or revealing. By the time his report aired, “stalemate” had been used by U.S. news organizations for months to characterize the war in Vietnam.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had grown dubious about the war long before the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

Cronkite’s commentary did little to turn Americans, or the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, against the war.

Cronkite often said as much, likening the program’s effect on policymakers to that of a straw. (Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the purported potency of his 1968 commentary.)

So why bother about — and why blog about — the embrace of media myth on Sorkin’s tiresome, eyeroll-inducing show?

A couple of reasons present themselves.

The blithe, casual reference on The Newsroom to Murrow and Cronkite helps insinuate the media myths in popular consciousness.  It reinforces their tenacity.

Embracing the myths serves also to promote the “golden age” fallacy, the appealing but exaggerated belief that there really was a time when American broadcast news produced giants — hallowed figures of the likes of Murrow and Cronkite who, in the contemporary media landscape, are nowhere to be found.

It is an enticing notion. But it’s flawed and misleading — and vastly overstates the contributions, and opinions, of Murrow and Cronkite.

WJC

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‘Sneakily patriotic’ movies that promote media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 1, 2011 at 7:28 am

The film critic for Gannett News Service has identified in time for the Fourth of July weekend 10 movies he says are “sneakily patriotic.”

Meaning they promote patriotism indirectly, without a lot of flag-waving flamboyance.

The list, compiled by critic Bill Goodykoontz, includes Apollo 13, the dramatic 1995 movie about an ill-fated lunar mission that ended safely, and Miracle, the 2004 film about the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympics hockey team, a movie that does feature a fair amount of flag-waving.

Notably, two of the “sneakily patriotic” films have promoted and propelled media-driven myths — those dubious and improbable tales about news media that masquerade as factual.

Both myth-promoting movies push the extravagant notion that the news media are, or were, powerful and decisive forces in American political life. And both movies are discussed in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

The myth-promoters are:

Goodykoontz, in describing the two movies, invokes their mythical aspects.

About All the President’s Men, Goodykoontz writes that Woodward and Bernstein’s “coverage of the Watergate break-in … led, ultimately, to the resignation of Richard Nixon.”

And Good Night, and Good Luck, he writes, “evokes an earlier era of media and how it could be used to stem the abuse of power.”

I point out in Getting It Wrong how movies can solidify media-driven myths in the public’s consciousness. “High-quality cinematic treatments,” I write, “are powerful agents of media myth-making, and can enhance a myth’s durability.”

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men solidified what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the simplistic notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

All the President’s Men, I write, allows no interpretation other than it was the work of Woodward and Bernstein that “set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

But to embrace that interpretation, I further write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

The heroic-journalist interpretation serves to diminish and ignore the far more powerful forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.

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

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him” plotting to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

When considered against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein pale in significance and consequence.

A somewhat similar dynamic is at work in Good Night, and Good Luck.

The movie, which was released in black and white to lend a 1950s feel, permits no other conclusion than Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy single-handedly ended the senator’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.

Murrow’s show detailing McCarthy’s loathsome and bullying tactics was aired in March 1954 — long after other journalists had confronted the senator and, in some cases, paid a heavy price for doing so.

Among those journalists was the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson, who took aim at McCarthy in February 1950, not long after the senator began his red-baiting campaign.

By the end of that year, McCarthy had physically assaulted Pearson and denounced him from the Senate floor as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and the “sugar-coated voice of Russia.”

In the Senate speech excoriating Pearson, McCarthy aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., the principal sponsor of the columnist’s Sunday night radio program.

McCarthy said that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

Within a week, Adam Hat announced the end of its sponsorship of Pearson’s program.

Pearson may not have had the finest reputation in 1950s American journalism. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate.com, wrote last year that Pearson was “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”

But Pearson took on McCarthy years before Murrow — and long before it was safe. He certainly was “sneakily patriotic” in doing so.

WJC

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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, posted an intriguing column yesterday about appealing but dubious quotations that journalists seem especially prone to cite, noting that such famous lines “often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations.”

It’s an important reminder, given the endless popularity of quotations that are neat, tidy, and irresistibly delicious. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

Silverman’s column, titled “Misquotes that refuse to die,” was centered around a comment attributed in 2009 to David Plouffe, Barrack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008.

Plouffe supposedly said he felt a bit “queasy” about the prospect of Obama’s facing Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor, in the presidential election in 2012.

“Plouffe never said it,” Silverman wrote, describing how the queasy line took on life of its own.

Journalists can be particularly susceptible to such succinct “little gems,” as Silverman put it, because the gems are so effective in making a point or in distilling complexity.

Silverman’s column noted two famous, dubious quotes that I dismantle in Getting It Wrong.

One of them is the comment misattributed to President Lyndon Johnson who,  in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

The other dubious quote discussed in Getting It Wrong and mentioned by Silverman is William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Reasons for doubting the Hearstian vow are many, I write, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement has never turned up. Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

A number of other famous and delicious quotes favored by journalists likewise have proven to be false, made-up, or of mythical dimension; among them:

  • Too early to say.” It’s often said that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered the observation in 1972, as sage, far-sighted analysis about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. But according to a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., Zhou’s comment, which came during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, was about political turmoil in France in 1968. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history, Freeman said recently. Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip.

So what to do about these delicious but dubious and phony quotations?

Keep pounding away at them, calling them out for what they are, whenever they appear. That’s the only effective way of debunking.

But even then, thorough and utter debunking can be rare.

WJC

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Invoking Murrow-McCarthy myth to assert the worthiness of TV

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on June 11, 2011 at 6:58 am

Murrow

Media-driven myths have a variety of perverse applications — including value in scoring points in arguments.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald does just that in turning to a particularly hardy media myth — that of Edward R. Murrow’s supposedly decisive televised report in 1954 about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

In a commentary titled “In defense of the idiot box,” the Morning Herald argues for the worthiness of television, asserting that the medium “has the power to shock, appeal, nauseate and, if everything comes together, inspire.”

The commentary further states:

“TV has made a difference before. In the early days, Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy, starting a tradition of fearless TV journalism exposing the corruption of government, the horrors of war and the dark side of society. The medium may have numbed the odd brain but it’s also done a lot of good ….”

Mind-numbing television generally is.

More doubtful is the commentary’s extravagant claim about the fearlessness of Murrow. His report about McCarthy, which aired on the See It Now show of March 9, 1954, scarcely can be termed “fearless” and shouldn’t be seen as inaugurating any sort of “tradition” of searching, intrepid broadcast journalism.

That’s because Murrow was very late in taking on McCarthy and the senator’s heavy-handed campaign against communists in government.

Pearson, muckraking columnist

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media mythbusting book that came out last year, the evidence “is overwhelming that Murrow’s famous program on McCarthy had no … decisive effect, that Murrow in fact was very late in confronting McCarthy, that he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Notable among those journalists was Drew Pearson, who wrote the syndicated and widely read muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson was quick to call attention to the recklessness of McCarthy’s claims.

He took on McCarthy in February 1950, soon after the senator first raised his claims about communists in high places in the U.S. government.

Pearson wrote that month that “the alleged communists which [McCarthy] claims are sheltered in the State Department just aren’t.”

Far from being fearless, Murrow, it can be argued, waited till the risks had subsided before taking on McCarthy. By March 1954, McCarthy’s capacity to stir dread was in decided retreat.

I note in Getting It Wrong that Eric Sevareid, Murrow’s friend and colleague at CBS News, was among those who chafed at the interpretation of fearlessness attached to the Murrow program which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said in the 1970s:

“The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong how the media myth about Murrow took hold despite the protestations of its central figures.

“In the days and weeks after the See It Now program,” I write, “Murrow said he recognized his accomplishments were modest, that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about McCarthy.

“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.'”

Murrow, moreover, told Newsweek magazine: “It’s a sad state of affairs when people think I was courageous” in confronting McCarthy.

Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, likewise rejected claims that the See It Now program on McCarthy was pivotal or decisive. As Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, is the winner of the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism.

The award will be presented in September at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, which are dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a summary of the 10 myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.
  2. War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is exaggerated.
  3. Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy.
  4. Bay of Pigs: The New York Times did not suppress its reporting in the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
  5. Cronkite-Johnson: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment or revision of U.S. war policy.
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September 1968.
  7. Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds.
  8. Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
  9. Jessica Lynch: The Washington Post’s erroneous reporting about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War gave rise to several myths about her capture and rescue.
  10. Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” SPJ says, and “must be based on original research; either published or unpublished, and must have been completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”

WJC

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Glib and sanctimonious: Woodward likens Trump to Joe McCarthy

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 29, 2011 at 8:55 am

McCarthy in 1954

Bob Woodward, he of Watergate fame, says Donald Trump’s persistent questioning about President Barack Obama’s place of birth is akin to the tactics of the odious Joe McCarthy, the Republican senator infamous for his communists-in-government witch-hunt during the early 1950s.

The probing by Trump, the billionaire developer and prospective presidential candidate, prompted Obama this week to release the long form of his birth certificate, which clearly showed he was born in Hawaii in 1961.

“Trump, I think, was or may be still aspiring to be the new Joe McCarthy,” Woodward said yesterday on the MSNBC talk show, Morning Joe.

But why should anyone care what Woodward thinks about Trump and McCarthy? Woodward’s no expert on 1950s America.

Besides, his claim about McCarthy was little more than glib and sanctimonious hyperbole: Trump’s aggressive badgering of Obama may have been hardball politics. It was nothing akin to McCarthy’s wild accusations about communist infiltration of government, nothing like the senator’s bullying of witnesses under oath in closed session.

Woodward’s a fine one to talk, anyway: It’s not as if his reporting on Watergate for the Washington Postthe reporting that won him lasting acclaim — was free of dubious technique. Far from it.

Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, acknowledged in their book, All the President’s Men, to having committed ethical lapses during their Watergate reporting in the early 1970s.

Notably, they recounted failed attempts to encourage federal grand jurors to violate oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate testimony. Woodward and Bernstein conceded their efforts were “a seedy venture” that nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including the then-executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

According to All the President’s Men, Woodward “wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself.” Such qualms notwithstanding, they went ahead with what they described in the book as a “clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury.”

Their efforts to entice grand jurors to violate their oaths of secrecy were soon reported to federal prosecutors who in turn informed John Sirica, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you,” the Post’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, told the reporters, according to the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Bernstein also acknowledged in All the President’s Men that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records.

McCarthy-esque their lapses certainly weren’t. But weren’t trivial, either. Adrian Havill, author of Deep Truth, an unauthorized biography of Woodward and Bernstein, wrote that “part of the methodology Bob and Carl used … was unethical or bordered on criminality.”

Their missteps represented serious misjudgments, which are rarely recalled these days, when the hero-worship of Woodward and Bernstein seems as intense as ever.

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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When we err, we correct: Still waiting, Bill Keller

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 27, 2011 at 7:06 am

Keller

Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, offers a smug and  sanctimonious commentary today, asserting that the newspaper strives “to be impartial” and corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Whether the Times is impartial open to serious debate. What interests Media Myth Alert is Keller’s claim that the Times strives for promptness in correcting errors — even to the point of seeming a bit absurd in doing so.

Keller wrote that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’)”

But the policy of publishing a prompt and forthright correction certainly hasn’t been followed in the matter of a correction the Times flubbed two months ago — a lapse that I brought to the attention of the newspaper and its public editor, or ombudsman.

Granted, correcting a correction can be complicated and muddy.

But still: If the policy is to “correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible,” then there’s no reason for the newspaper not to have addressed by now a correction that it so clearly flubbed.

Joseph Welch

The correction in question was published January 23, 2011; in it, the Times sought to set straight its mistake in a “Week in Review” article of the week before, which referred to the dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

The Times sought to set straight the context and circumstances of Welch’s memorable remarks, which came during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. The Times stated in its correction:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

Which was incorrect on two counts, as I pointed out.

McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee — a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations). And McCarthy was at the hearing to testify.

As I wrote in calling attention to the flubbed correction:

“Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s ‘sense of decency,’ the senator was sworn in as a witness.”

According to hearing excerpts the Times published at the time, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

To date, the Times has not corrected its flubbed correction.

So why does it matter? After all, 1954 was a long time ago.

It matters because the Army-McCarthy hearings were an important moment in Cold War America. A newspaper as important — and self-important — as the Times should be expected to get straight the details about a memorable and dramatic occasion.

It also matters because of Keller’s smug assurance that the Times corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

Surely, if the Times deigns it important to set the record straight about Ivana Trump’s bras, it ought to fix its flawed correction about the Army-McCarthy hearings.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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