W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media-driven myths’

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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Maddow cherry-picks to avoid correcting claim about Pentagon, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post on June 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

To cherry-pick is to be highly selective, to use facts that support one’s position while ignoring the confounding evidence.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

And that’s essentially what Rachel Maddow did on her MSNBC program last night. She cherry-picked details about the reporting of the hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch to avoid correcting her erroneous claim on a show June 3. Maddow had said in a commentary that night “the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics in the first days of the Iraq War.

In cherry-picking, Maddow failed to mention the foundation of the bogus hero-warrior story – the Washington Post article that cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch, then a 19-year-old supply clerk, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, on March 23, 2003. The Post’s story turned out to be wrong in almost all vital details.

One of the reporters on the story, which the Post published on its front page on April 3, 2003, later said, unequivocally:

Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Rather, he said, without a trace of irony, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C.

The reporter was Vernon Loeb, who at the time the Post’s defense correspondent. He also said in an interview that aired on NPR in December 2003: “We got these intelligence reports right as [Lynch] was being rescued” in an operation mounted by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003. Lynch has been grievously injured in the crash of a Humvee in trying to escape the ambush; she was taken prisoner and held at an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah.

Loeb said the Post’s story “turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong.”

What’s more, he said:

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those [intelligence] reports at all. I got indications that they had, in fact, received those intelligence reports, but the Pentagon was completely unwilling to comment on those reports at all. They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

Despite Loeb’s statements about the sourcing of the hero-warrior story, a false narrative has taken hold over the years that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, supposedly to build homefront support for the war.

On her show last night, Maddow referred neither to Loeb’s statements nor to the Post’s seminal report about Lynch. She instead assailed Politifact, a blog aligned with Punditfact, which had assessed as false her claim last week that the Pentagon “made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.

According to a transcript of her remarks last night, Maddow smugly declared:

“So, this is a pretty simple thing from the fact-checking perspective. Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative that Jessica Lynch went down fighting when she was captured?”

(Note the none-too-subtle shift: On her program June 3, Maddow asserted that “the Pentagon made up” the story about Lynch’s heroics. Last night, her parameters were: “Did the military provide false information that led to the narrative ….” Not quite the same.)

Maddow referred last night to a report by 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 also was quoted as saying. “Reports are that she fired her (M-16 rifle) until she had no more ammunition.”

Maddow crowed: “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.

Lynch_headline_Post

WaPo’s hero-warrior story

Thorp,  then a Navy captain assigned to the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, was not inventing, he was following. He was restating elements of a story the Post had already placed in circulation, a story based on intelligence sources, a story that quickly attracted all sorts of international attention.

As the Post’s ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, pointed out: “The Post story [about Lynch] was exclusive. The rest of the world’s media picked it up from The Post, which put this tale into the public domain.”

Indeed, it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Washington Post’s central and decisive role in the story. And Thorp’s subsequent statements made clear that he had been following the Post’s lead that day. Thorp said in an email in 2007 to a congressional staffer who had asked about the comments to the Military Times:

“As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States .…  I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same .… I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them .… We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred .… That is what I stated.” (Ellipses in the original.)

Thorp later was quoted by Newsweek as saying he was not a source for the Post on its seminal story about Lynch’s heroics.

Which makes sense. Had he been a source for the Post on the Lynch story, why would the newspaper resist identifying him as such, especially after his remarks to the Military Times? If Thorp, a military spokesman, had been a source for the Post, why would Loeb, months after the hero-warrior story was published, insist that his sources had been “intelligence sources”?

Thorp at most played a bit part in the Lynch saga.

Besides, the cynical, Pentagon-made-it-up narrative never made much sense. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “At the time of the Lynch rescue, U.S. forces were closing in on Baghdad. So it defies logic to argue that the American military would have singled out and hyped the Lynch rescue for morale-building purposes when its central and vastly more important wartime objective was within reach.”

WJC

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Now from the right: ‘American Spectator’ wrongly says Jessica Lynch was ‘portrayed by Pentagon as hero’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post on June 8, 2014 at 8:58 am

In an otherwise cogent critique of Rachel Maddow’s recent commentary about returned American prisoner Bowe Berghdahl, the right-of-center American Spectator wrongly accused the Pentagon of portraying Jessica Lynch “as a hero” early in the Iraq War.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army supply clerk severely injured March 23, 2003, in the crash of her Humvee while fleeing an ambush in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. The Washington Post, though, reported that Lynch had suffered gunshot and stab wounds as she fought fiercely against the attacking Iraqis. She kept firing, the Post said, until she ran out of ammunition.

None of those details was accurate, however. Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon jammed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, but was badly hurt in the Humvee crash. Lynch was taken prisoner and held in an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

AmSpecturkey_1

American Spectator logo

In the years since the Post’s hero-warrior story was published on April 3, 2003, a false narrative has taken hold that says the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do. The American Spectator’s claim, included in a commentary posted online Friday, is the latest evocation of that narrative.

We know it’s a false narrative because one of the Post reporters on the story has flatly stated that the newspaper’s sources for the story “were not Pentagon sources.” The reporter, Vernon Loeb, who in 2003 was the Post’s defense correspondent, further stated in an interview in December 2003 on NPR that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

Loeb, now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also said in the interview:

“I’ve never believed that, at least as far as the story we wrote goes, that it was a Pentagon attempt to create a hero there.”

None of that what acknowledged by the liberal Maddow in an on-air commentary Tuesday on MSNBC in which she sought to equate the rescue of Lynch with the release of Bergdahl, the American soldier whose comrades say deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was taken captive by the Taliban and exchanged a week ago for five senior Taliban figures.

In her commentary, Maddow asserted without citing sources that the Pentagon had “made up” the tale of Lynch’s battlefield heroics. The American Spectator, in taking issue with Maddow’s equating the cases of Lynch and Bergdahl, committed a similar error: Lynch, it said, “was initially portrayed by the Pentagon as a hero … who went down guns blazing and riddled with bullets.”

Loeb and the Post have never made clear how it got the Lynch-combat story so utterly wrong — a story that Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, memorably described as having “had an odor to it almost from the beginning.”

Loeb’s interview on NPR was the Post’s most detailed public discussion about sourcing for that story, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt reported from Washington, D.C. But even that discussion fell woefully short in important respects.

In the NPR interview, Loeb said “we were told by some really good intelligence sources here in Washington that, you know, there were indications that [Lynch] had, you know, fired back and resisted her capture and actually been shot and possibly stabbed doing so. None of this turned out to be the case as we, you know, quickly learned. But, you know, we basically told our readers that day what the U.S. intelligence community was telling senior members of the U.S. government. It just kind of goes back to the old adage that, you know, initial reports from the battlefield are almost always wrong.”

Despite the recognized unreliability of such reports, the Post placed its account of Lynch’s supposed exploits in combat on the front page, thrusting the hero-warrior tale into the public domain. And the story was picked up by news organizations around the world. The Times of London, for example, declared that “Private Lynch has won a place in history as a gritty, all-American hero, to rival the likes of Bonnie and Clyde.”

In its erroneous report about Lynch, Post cited otherwise unnamed “U.S. officials” as sources. The newspaper has never identified them.Getting It Wrong_cover

In 2008, I called Loeb to discuss the matter but he hung up on me. I was at the time researching my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a chapter of which is devoted to the bogus hero-warrior story about Lynch.

So if the Post will not disclose the sources that led it to such embarrassment, the next-best step would be for news organizations to avoid, resist, and deep-six the false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon.

Important steps to that end can be taken if Maddow and the American Spectator were to issue corrections to their erroneous reports.

WJC

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Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on June 4, 2014 at 6:43 pm
Lynch_headline_Post

The hero-warrior tale: WaPo’s story

In a logically confused commentary on her MSNBC program last night, 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 cited no source for her claim, offered as she revisited 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.

The Post article cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” in declaring that Lynch, then a 19-year-old private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters on that story — which turned out to be wrong in almost every important detail — later made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, 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.”

Loeb, then the Post’s defense correspondent, also said in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He further declared:

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

And yet none of that vital context was known to, or acknowledged by, Maddow as she discussed the Lynch case last night.

Maddow did so in an odd, contorted, and ultimately unpersuasive attempt to locate parallels between Lynch — who was taken prisoner at Nasiriyah and was rescued 11 days later by U.S. special forces — and the controversial recent release of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years.

The administration of President Barack Obama over the weekend swapped five senior Taliban figures for Bergdahl’s freedom.

According to a transcript of her program, Maddow recalled that Lynch and her unit “were supposed to take a detour around the city of Nasiriyah, but they didn’t. They took a wrong turn or more likely a few wrong turns. And they ended up right in the city center.

“They were supposed to go around the city and not go through it at all. They ended up wrong turn after wrong turn, right in the city center, undefended, in territory where the U.S. Army knew they were likely to be attacks or ambushes, and they just drove right into it.”

But the 507th Maintenance wasn’t exactly “undefended”; some of its soldiers put up terrific resistance. Among them was Sergeant Donald Walters, a cook who put down covering fire as his comrades tried to escape the ambush.

Walters and 10 other soldiers in the 507th Maintenance were killed at Nasiriyah. Lynch suffered shattering injuries in the crash of her Humvee as it fled the attack.

Maddow then raised questions about Lynch’s rescue (which took place two days before the Post’s hero-warrior story was published) that no one seriously poses:

“Should that rescue not have happened? Should Jessica Lynch have been left there? Seriously, is that what we think about these things now?

“Private First Class Jessica Lynch, star of the show of that rescue. 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. After all, maybe it was their own screw-up that got them ambushed and hurt and captured in the first place.

“Is that how we think about these things now?” Maddow asked. “Is that how we think now about that rescue in hindsight knowing what we know now?

“Because that kind of a case, that obscenity of a case that maybe some Americans might deserve to be left behind, that is new cause célèbre on the American right, right now, that the American prisoner of war, the last American prisoner of war, the last and only one still held from either the Iraq war or the Afghanistan war, the American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, he did not deserve to be freed — that the U.S. government working to free him, succeeding to free him, that was a shame somehow, because yes, sure, he was an American soldier, but he was a bad one,” Maddow said.

That’s to torture logic, and to raise strawman arguments in seeking equivalence in the cases of Lynch — who undeniably was a prisoner of war, if not a heroic one — and of Bergdahl. The circumstances are vastly different.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is Maddow’s claim, offered casually and without reference to sources, “that the Pentagon made up” the tale of Lynch’s heroics.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch

The Pentagon rather treated the Lynch hero-warrior story as if it were radioactive. As Loeb, now a top editor at the Houston Chronicle, declared on another occasion:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

The false narrative about Lynch and the Pentagon represents continuing fallout not only from the Post’s bungled reporting in April 2003 but from the newspaper’s reluctance to identify the sources on whom Loeb and fellow reporter Susan Schmidt relied in preparing the hero-warrior story.

Only by identifying the sources who led it awry on that story will the Post set right a false narrative that still circulates widely, as Maddow’s commentary last night made quite clear.

WJC

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Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 29, 2014 at 8:03 am
'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The famous “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 undeniably ranks among the most profound and disturbing images of the Vietnam War. Its power, though, is often overstated.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, and showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled. The photograph, formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since then, a tendency has developed to attribute to the image effects that are far more powerful and decisive than it projected at the time.

For example, the Guardian newspaper in London asserted in a review the other day of an exhibit in France of the imagery of war that Ut’s photo “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.” Neither claim is accurate.

By June 1972, American public opinion had long since turned against the war in Vietnam. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

Ut’s photo can hardly be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: That shift had taken place years before.

Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

Compelling though it was, the “napalm girl” photo exerted impact far less profound than is now believed.

But so what? Why is it problematic to overstate the image’s effects?

To do so is to indulge in a central flaw of a media-driven myth — that of media centrism, of exaggerating the power of the journalism, of attributing to news media greater influence than they really wield. To do so also is to misread and distort the historical record. No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam or “expedited” its end: The war’s duration, its uncertain policy objectives, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive factors in the outcome of the conflict.

“Napalm girl” was an unsettling image, undeniably memorable. But it does not follow that it wielded immeasurable or decisive influence.

It did not.

WJC

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Jessica Lynch, the Fin Times, and ‘big propaganda stories’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 am

It is well-understood that the tale of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003 was bogus.

Much less well-understood is how the story of her purported derring-do entered the public domain.

Many accounts of the exaggerated hero-warrior tale blame the U.S. government or the U.S. military — or simply the U.S. — for cynically attempting to turn Lynch, then-19-year-old Army supply clerk, into a wartime hero.

Far fewer accounts identify the real source of error — a botched report published 11 years ago today in the Washington Post.

Lynch_headline_Post

Page one 11 years ago: The Post’s botched story

Most recently to err in describing the derivation of the Lynch saga is London’s Financial Times, a sophisticated newspaper printed on distinctive salmon-colored newsprint.

The Financial Times ruminated in a commentary the other day about “the power of peace” and included this vague yet pointed accusation:

“During the Iraq war, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false.”

How so, “the US”? The commentary doesn’t say.

In the case of Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger and former professional football player, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command said that he had been killed by enemy gunfire in 2004, in Afghanistan. A subsequent Defense Department investigation determined his death was caused by friendly fire.

But in the Lynch case, it was the Washington Post — not “the US,” and certainly not the U.S. military — that was the source of the bogus report.

In a front-page article published April 3, 2003, the Post claimed that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition” and was captured.

The Post declared that Lynch suffered “multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in fighting in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Post cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” as sources for the electrifying account of the young woman’s heroism.

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — was wrong in almost every major respect. The ambush did occur, on March 23, 2003, in the first days of the Iraq War. But Lynch did not fire her weapon in the attack. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the escape. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Lynch in 2003

Lynch in 2003

The Post has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its erroneous report. But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb did make clear that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

In an interview with NPR in December 2003, Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

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

Over the years, though, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon made it all up.

What accounts for this transformation? Why has the Post’s singular role in the Lynch case been so thoroughly eclipsed?

One reason is that it’s perversely delicious and sinister to assert that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch and somehow fed it to gullible news outlets. That’s a far more engaging story than that of mangled newspaper reporting.

Another reason is that the Post, on occasion, has been complicit in muddying its decisive contribution to Lynch fable.

The newspaper has been known to characterize the hero-warrior tale as one that other news media were telling, too. That’s true, but only after the Post published the story that made Lynch, quite undeservedly, the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

Eleven years on, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly botched its report about Lynch.

WJC

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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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