W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media’

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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Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ pledge for Vietnam invoked as taunt in Illinois politics

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on June 4, 2014 at 7:35 am

A claim that Richard Nixon never made — that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam — has surfaced amid the snark and one-upmanship of politics in Illinois.

Cullerton

Cullerton (From his Web site)

Nixon’s mythical pledge was invoked the other day by John Cullerton, president of the Illinois senate, who taunted the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bruce Rauner, for not directly addressing how his administration would cover the state’s multibillion budget deficit.

“It’s like,” Cullerton said, “Richard Nixon: ‘I have a secret plan to get out of Vietnam, just after the election.'” His comment was aired in a report on WUIS radio in Springfield, Illinois.

Media Myth Alert is only faintly interested in the intricacies of Illinois state politics. But it does find Cullerton’s snarky quip intriguing, as it suggests a casual, almost-reflexive embrace of a claim that rather sounds Nixonian but really wasn’t.

The “secret plan” chestnut, which circulates periodically as purported evidence of Nixon’s venality and sneaky ways, dates to the presidential election campaign in 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

The wire service United Press International, in reporting Nixon’s speech, pointed out that the candidate “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” The UPI dispatch further noted that “Nixon’s promise recalled Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge in 1952, when Nixon was his running mate, to end the war in Korea.”

Nixon may have been vague in his remarks about Vietnam, but he made no claim to possess a “secret plan” to end the war. He did not run for the presidency by proclaiming one. That much is quite clear in searching a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968 — among them the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period of January 1967 to January 1969 in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period embraced Nixon’s campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, had Nixon been touting a “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers would have reported it.

According to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon addressed that notion, stating that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

He also said on that occasion:

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

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not campaign for the presidency that year saying he did.

In the end, the “secret plan” anecdote is a dubious bit of popular history that can be too tempting to resist. It is, as William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist, once wrote, a “non-quotation [that] never seems to go away.”

Had Cullerton been inclined to research the anecdote before so blithely invoking it, he might have turned to the back issues of the largest newspaper in his district, the Chicago Tribune. In September 1972, in the midst of Nixon’s reelection campaign, the Tribune observed in an editorial that Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern “has repeatedly attacked President Nixon for saying in 1968 that he had ‘a secret plan to end the war.’ … Such quotes from the past would make wonderful political weapons if they were true.

“The trouble is they are not. Mr. Nixon never uttered the phrase.”

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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Editor’s little-noted memoir offers intriguing insight about WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

It’s mentioned on few if any “books of the year” lists, but the recent memoir by a former Washington Post editor offers revealing insights about the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, describing how one of them, Carl Bernstein, was such a slacker that he was nearly dismissed in the early 1970s.

Rosenfeld memoir_coverThe memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate, is Harry Rosenfeld’s telling of his long career in newspapering. He was the Post’s metropolitan editor during Watergate and managed Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in 1972 and 1973 were the newspaper’s lead reporters on the unfolding scandal.

Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Or so the media myth has it.

Rosenfeld comes close in his book to embracing the myth of Watergate, stating that the Post “played a key role in assisting the ship of state to stay the course while navigating through the stormy waters of a constitutional crisis” that brought Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He makes scant acknowledgement of the more powerful investigative forces — congressional and judicial — that combined to uncover Nixon’s criminal misconduct and bring an end to his presidency.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome were modest at best.

Rosenfeld writes with evident pride about Woodward and the “intensity of his work habits.” By the time the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Rosenfeld says, Woodward “had established himself as a fully qualified reporter, sharper than most and more ambitious and hardworking than any.”

The most delicious passages of Rosenfeld’s book discuss Bernstein’s troubled times at the Post during the period before and shortly after the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein, he writes, routinely antagonized his editors, was known for missing deadlines while regularly logging many hours of unapproved overtime, and was notorious for failing to submit expense reports. He also had a tendency on assignments to rent cars that he was slow to return, running up late charges for the Post.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

After such a caper in the summer of 1972, the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and its managing editor, Howard Simons, wanted Rosenfeld to fire Bernstein. He had “yet again rented a car and left it stranded in a parking lot for days, with costly rental fees mounting by the hour,” Rosenfeld writes.

But Rosenfeld demurred, telling the editors that dismissing Bernstein made no sense when, “‘for once in his life, Carl is producing the goods'” in reporting on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Bernstein kept his job.

Rosenfeld had laid groundwork for dismissing Bernstein in 1971, after the reporter had failed to submit an article about the port of Norfolk, VA, despite his many promises to produce the story.

Rosenfeld sat in on what he called “a heart-to-heart” conversation between Bernstein and his then-editor, Kevin Klose, who later became dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

After the heart-to-heart, Rosenfeld wrote in a memorandum that it had been made clear to Bernstein “‘that he either begins to be a productive reporter or he and the Post better go separate ways and that if cannot soon come to grips with his responsibilities to his job, that I would move against him on negligence of duty. …'”

Bernstein, Rosenfeld wrote in the memorandum, “‘understood that if he could not become productive and that if he and his editors continued to be antagonistic all the time, it would be better for him to leave. He said that … I would see a much changed man.’

“That new man,” Rosenfeld says, “clearly emerged in Watergate — a full year after his pledge. In the course of Watergate, the tiger changed his stripes, the leopard his spots, and Joshua commanded the sun not to set and the moon to stand still. The transformation was that epic. …. If he had persisted in his old ways … he almost surely would have been fired, for which the legal groundwork had been laid.”

Still, Bernstein’s redemption was less than total. Even when doing his best work, Rosenfeld notes in the book, Bernstein “still managed to remain irritating.”

So why, more than 40 years afterward,  is all of this important?

As Rosenfeld notes, it is “worth contemplating” how Bernstein — who remains one of America’s best-known and most outspoken journalists — nearly missed having an “historic role” in the Watergate story. Rosenfeld’s memoir also demonstrates how unpopular Bernstein was in the Post’s newsroom.

More important is that Rosenfeld’s unflattering characterizations, which clearly are offered not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way that Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not do in their bestselling 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

Finally, the passages about Bernstein serves as a reminder that the most engaging memoirs are those not sanitized. Although the book has not received wide attention, Rosenfeld’s memoir is commendable for its candor about Bernstein.

WJC

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Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on November 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm

It’s testimony to the program’s flaws and tedium that public discussion about the PBS “American Experience” documentary largely faded away within days if not hours after it was broadcast. The documentary revisited the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds which aired 75 years ago and told of Martians mounting lethal attack on the United States.

Hyping the reaction

Did not

So realistic was the radio show that it supposedly pitched tens of thousands of listeners into panic and mass hysteria.

That, of course, makes for a timeless story, and  is a critical reason why the program is recalled and discussed unlike any other radio show. But the reports of panic and hysteria loosed by the radio show were grossly exaggerated by the newspapers of the day. As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, whatever fear the program may have stirred, it did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and hysteria.

Eleven days ago, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds dramatization in a documentary notable for failing to confront the most important and intriguing questions about radio program: Did it set off panicked reactions across the country when it aired on October 30, 1938? If not, why is it so widely believed that it had such powerful and immediate effects?

In ducking those central questions, the documentary was an opportunity lost.

The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, said as much in a column last week, saying he was “in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

The PBS documentary prompted other criticism, too — including its use of cheesy recreated dialog spoken by actors clad in period clothing.

One of the actors played the part of a “Sylvia Holmes” from Newark, New Jersey, who supposedly was pitched into panic by The War of the Worlds radio show. The documentary, however, did not disclose that “Sylvia Holmes” was a pseudonymous character, whose “remarks” were taken from The Invasion From Mars, a flawed book about the radio show published in 1940. (That book intentionally obscured the identities of “Holmes” and other interview subjects.)

As I pointed out at Media Myth Alert last week, PBS editorial standards say that its programming content “should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

Offering up a pseudonymous character and failing to identify her as such seemed to skirt those standards.

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

Getler in a column yesterday said he didn’t think so. “The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name,” he wrote, adding:

“But I don’t view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person.”

It’s sloppy, though. It’s slyly misleading, and it’s hardly in keeping with a commitment to transparency. As such, it’s another dent in a documentary that was full of them.

Getler reiterated in his column yesterday that the documentary’s “biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.”

That’s quite true. But the documentary was more deeply flawed than that. Its makers, after all, ignored recent research that has impugned the notion The War of the Worlds program stirred mass panic.

And in dodging the central questions of The War of the Worlds program, the documentary ended up confused and meandering, not knowing for sure what it was supposed to do. So it turned out to be part tribute to the radio program; part tribute to the radio show’s director and star, Orson Welles;  part rumination about America of the late 1930s, and part digression about life on Mars.

At least it won’t be regarded as a definitive treatment about what was a clever, memorable, and mythical radio dramatization.

WJC

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PBS squanders opportunity to offer ‘content that educates’ in ‘War of the Worlds’ doc

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 29, 2013 at 10:02 pm
Orson Welles

Orson Welles

Tonight’s snoozy PBS documentary about the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds not only was tedious fare — it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.

The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.

But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of the program’s 23-year-old star, Orson Welles.

This scholarship is neither obscure nor inaccessible.

Jeffrey Sconce, for example, pointed out in 2000 in his book, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television: “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in actual panic over the [War of the Worlds] broadcast is … limited at best. … And yet the legend of paralyzing ‘mass panic’ lives on.”

Edward Jay Epstein has dismissed as a “fictoid” the notion that the radio program touched off mass hysteria. “The accounts of suicides, heart attacks, traffic collisions and flights all proved to be unfounded,” Epstein wrote, adding:

“The program itself of course was a fiction. So was the ‘Mass Hysteria,’ which became part of American folklore about the power of the media.”

Michael Socolow, a journalism historian at the University of Maine, said this about The War of the Worlds broadcast in a thoughtful commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago:

“Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.”

Socolow more recently has written a superb assessment of the broadcast, which was posted today at Slate.com. In it, he wrote:

“The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.”

Fifteen years ago, at the 60th anniversary of The War of the Worlds dramatization, Robert E. Bartholomew, an international expert on mass panic, pointed to a “growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic” created by Welles’ program, “was greatly exaggerated.

“The irony here,” Bartholomew wrote, “is that for the better part of the past sixty years many people may have been misled by the media to believe that the panic was far more extensive and intense than it apparently was.”

The panic, to be sure, was overstated. Exaggerated. And has become the stuff of a tenacious media-driven myth.

As I wrote in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I also discuss in Getting It Wrong a little-studied secondary phenomenon associated with The War of the Worlds broadcast, that “a false-alarm contagion took hold that night” in which well-intentioned people possessing little more than an incomplete understanding of Welles’ program set out on their own to warn others about a sudden and terrible threat.Getting It Wrong_cover

These would-be Paul Reveres, I wrote, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.

“It had to have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken. … In more than a few cases, a contagion took hold: Many non-listeners became quite frightened, thus compounding for a short time the commotion and confusion stemming from The World of the Worlds program.”

PBS might well have examined that effect. It might have more seriously considered the broader counter-narrative that has taken shape about the radio dramatization.

PBS might have examined, in ways revealing to its audience, how media influences are not transmitted like a narcotic injected by hypodermic needle. News and entertainment media exert influences in ways that typically are far more subtle, nuanced, complex, and uneven.

But to believe The War of the Worlds radio program stirred chaos, mass panic, and widespread hysteria is effectively to embrace the hypodermic needle theory of media influence — a theory discredited long ago .

The age, class, wealth, education, political views, and life experiences of media audiences all are factors as to how media messages are absorbed and interpreted — if they are absorbed at all.

Socolow in his Chronicle article in 2008 noted the uneven and often-limited effects of media messages, writing:

“If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn’t every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?”

PBS — which says its mission is “to create content that educates, informs and inspires” — might have seized the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast to address such questions.

But, no: The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Upcoming PBS show on ‘War of Worlds’ may reinforce media myth — in cheesy fashion

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on August 29, 2013 at 11:05 am

An upcoming PBS documentary about the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization seems certain to embrace the media myth that the show provoked panic across the United States when it aired nearly 75 years ago.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of Worlds’

The PBS program is to be shown October 29, on the eve of the anniversary of the radio play that starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of the invasion of America by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

The ever-appealing tale of radio-inducted hysteria is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Simply put, the notion that The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria is Halloween’s greatest media myth.

I note in Getting It Wrong that pockets of Americans may have been frightened by the program. But there is scant evidence that many listeners acted on their fears. And being frightened is hardly synonymous with being pitched into panic and hysteria.

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria  swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.

Nonetheless, the panic myth probably is too well-known, and too entrenched in American culture, ever to be thoroughly cast aside. And the PBS program in late October may well serve to reinforce an already-tenacious media myth.

It could be a cheesy show, too. The PBS description suggests as much, saying the program will make use of “letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself” to dramatize “the public’s reaction … with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment… or the end of the world.”

(The actor outtakes posted online undeniably are cheesy.)

The PBS program, should it promote the media myth, would run counter to a substantial body of research that has dismissed or cast serious doubt on the notion Welles’ radio program caused panic and mass hysteria. In addition to my research and Socolow’s work, Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on the phenomenon of panics, has written that many people wrongly “believe a panic took place” during and immediately after the airing of The War of the Worlds radio show.

Moreover, this month has brought publication of The United States of Paranoia, a sophisticated study of conspiracy theories in the United States. The book, written by Jesse Walker, an editor at  Reason magazine, addresses The War of the Worlds radio show and notes:

“There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, though, that they were any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.”

That’s very good. The producers of the PBS documentary would do well to give thought to such a telling observation.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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PBS set to embrace ‘mass hysteria’ myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds on May 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm
Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of the Worlds': No panic

PBS plans to air an “American Experience” program in October about the famous War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of Earth’s invasion by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

The PBS description sounds as if the program will embrace a hoary media-driven myth — that The War of the Worlds show of October 30, 1938, set off widespread panic and mass hysteria.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

In overwhelming numbers, I write in referring to contemporaneous polling data, most listeners “recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.”

But here’s the PBS summary of an hour-long “American Experience” program, to be aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary:

“AMERICAN EXPERIENCE ‘War of the Worlds’ Orson Welles’ infamous radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history 75 years ago. The film examines the elements that made America ripe for the hoax. Tuesday, October 29, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.”

The reference to “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history” raises eyebrows — and commanded the attention of Media Myth Alert.

(Asked for details about the content of the “American Experience” show, Cara White, a spokeswoman, said by email: “We don’t have additional information at this time since the program isn’t premiering until October. But we should have more information closer to the broadcast.”)

The 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds may have produced fleeting, localized fright and confusion. But there’s no persuasive evidence that it stirred anything approaching panic of nationwide dimension.

This is more than an academic argument: Listener reaction to The War of the Worlds program in 1938 speaks to whether the media have the capacity to create powerful, immediate, and unnerving effects.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I’m not alone in my conclusions about The War of the Worlds program, an hour-long adaptation that aired on CBS radio.

Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has noted there is scant evidence that many frightened listeners acted on their fears that night in 1938.

Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay in 2008 that “panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

Socolow also noted:

“The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry” during or after the radio program.

Moreover, had Welles’ show “set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history,” the resulting turmoil and trauma certainly would have resulted in serious injuries and deaths, including suicides.

But none were linked to the program.

The erroneous notion that The War of the Worlds dramatization had convulsed the country in panic and mass hysteria certainly was afoot in 1938 — and for U.S. newspapers of the time, that misleading interpretation offered a delicious opportunity to assail an upstart rival medium, radio.

By the late 1930s, radio had become an important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers had, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm,” I note. “It was as an opportunity they could not fail to let pass.”

The New York Times, for example, declared in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”:

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

The Times and other American newspapers in 1938 seemed eager to chastise radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the lingering and erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization set off panic and hysteria across the country.

Judging from its news release, PBS seems ready to embrace that media myth.

WJC

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