W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media’

Woodward ‘destroyed the Nixon presidency’: More dubious history from Rush Limbaugh

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 1, 2013 at 7:21 am

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh was at it again yesterday, offering up the dubious interpretation that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting “destroyed the Nixon presidency.”

That’s a seriously exaggerated version of the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Not even Woodward embraces that interpretation, once telling an interviewer: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

(Woodward(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Limbaugh’s remark about Woodward’s having “destroyed the Nixon presidency” came during a lengthy commentary about Woodward’s recent criticism about the administration of President Barack Obama.

Woodward has asserted that Obama proposed the controversial sequester plan — the automatic federal spending cuts that are to begin taking effect today.

What most intrigues Media Myth Alert is Limbaugh’s repeated claim that Woodward’s reporting was decisive in ending Nixon’s presidency. The talk-show host’s remark yesterday about Woodward and Nixon marked the second time this week he has made such an assertion.

On his show Monday, Limbaugh said flatly that “Woodward brought down Nixon” in the Watergate scandal.

The record, though,  is far more nuanced and complex than that: Woodward and his Washington Post reporting colleague Carl Bernstein played rather modest roles in unraveling the scandal.

Their reporting in the summer and fall 1972 progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the foiled burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — the signal crime of Watergate.

But by late October 1972, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, later acknowledged.

Significantly, Woodward and Bernstein did not break such crucial stories as the existence of Nixon’s audiotaping system at the White House. The tapes ultimately provided evidence that the president had obstructed justice by approving a scheme to deflect the FBI’s inquiry into the burglary.

The disclosure about the taping system came in July 1973, during a Senate select committee’s investigation into the unfolding Watergate scandal.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the payment of hush money to operatives arrested in the burglary — a key development in tying the White House to the Watergate scandal.

I discuss the media myth of Watergate in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, and write that the scandal demanded “the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

What I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting brought down Nixon — stems in large measure from the 1976 motion picture, All the President’s Men.

The movie, an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book by the same title, concentrated on the  reporters and ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators and special prosecutors.Getting It Wrong_cover

The movie was critically acclaimed and widely seen. Its effect, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

All the President’s Men, the movie, promoted a simplistic yet readily accessible interpretation of the Watergate scandal that is often invoked — as Limbaugh’s recent comments suggest. But it is an interpretation that nonetheless is utterly wrong.


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If Obama loses AP: Rush Limbaugh embraces media myths two days running

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 26, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Rush Limbaugh attracts the largest talk-show audiences on radio. Which is why it’s troubling when he indulges in media myths, as he’s done the past two days.



Program transcripts show that Limbaugh made clear if passing references to the “Cronkite Moment,” the 45th anniversary of which falls tomorrow, and to the hero-journalist myth that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Limbaugh on today’s program called attention to an Associated Press report that skeptically considered President Barack Obama’s claims of great disruption should federal government spending cuts, collectively known as the sequester, take effect beginning Friday.

Limbaugh, according to the program transcript, declared that “if Obama is losing AP on this, it’d be like Lyndon Johnson losing Cronkite on the war in Vietnam.”

The reference was to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment, delivered February 27, 1968, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.



Upon hearing Cronkite’s comment, Johnson supposedly understood that his war policy was in tatters and declared: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions of what the president supposedly said vary markedly.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s program when it aired.

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. And at the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president was making light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

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

So it’s hard to believe that the president could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

The importance of the debunking the “Cronkite Moment” goes beyond whether Johnson saw the program; far more significant is the anecdote’s deceptive message that a prominent journalist can profoundly alter policy.

Altering war policy certainly wasn’t the effect of Cronkite’s program 45 years ago. Even Cronkite likened the program’s influence to that of a straw placed on the back of a crippled camel.

Johnson did announce at the end of March 1968 that he was not seeking reelection to the presidency. But that decision had far more to do with his health and the prospect that Democrats would not renominate him than with Cronkite’s fairly tame and unoriginal commentary about Vietnam.

Limbaugh invoked Watergate’s hero-journalist trope in discussing the sequester during his program yesterday, stating flatly:

“Woodward brought down Nixon.”

He was referring to the supposed effects of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

But that’s a myth not even Woodward embraces.

Woodward: 'Horseshit'


In 2004, for example, Woodward told American Journalism Review, “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

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

Other principals at the Post have over the years similarly dismissed such outsize claims.

If not Woodward and his reporting sidekick Carl Bernstein, then who, or what, brought down Richard Nixon?

The best answer is that unraveling a scandal of the reach and complexity of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings” in 1974, making inevitable an early end to his presidency.

In the end, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was of faint consequence to Watergate’s dramatic outcome.

It merits mentioning that there’s no small irony in Limbaugh’s giving voice to these media myths.

He is, after all, a prominent conservative commentator and the “Cronkite Moment” and the Watergate myth center around journalists and news organizations commonly associated with liberal views.


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Media myth outbreak abroad; ‘Cronkite Moment’ goes viral

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on February 9, 2013 at 8:38 am

It’s well-known that media myths — those tall tales about the purported feats of American journalists — can go viral, internationally.

Seldom, though, has there been an outbreak as such yesterday’s, when leading newspapers in Canada, Britain, and Belgium separately indulged in the  “Cronkite Moment” media myth.

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson on February 27, 1968: Not watching Cronkite

The “Cronkite Moment” was in 1968, when on-air editorializing by CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly produced a moment of stunning clarity and insight for President Lyndon B. Johnson and altered the course of the war in Vietnam.

Such effects are wildly overstated, but they make for an irresistible tale of powerful media influence, and that’s like so much catnip to contemporary journalists and columnists.

It helps explains yesterday’s outbreak, which was abundantly seasoned with hagiographic praise for Cronkite, who died in 2009:

  • Rick Salutin, in a column for the Toronto Star about a Canadian news anchor, wrote that Cronkite set the “gold standard for anchors” and “was solid as the bronze statue of the American revolutionary minuteman” at Concord, Massachusetts. Salutin further wrote: “When president Lyndon Johnson heard Cronkite turn against the Vietnam War, he said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.’”
  • Michael McCarthy, the environment editor for London’s Independent newspaper, wrote in a column about filmmaker David Attenborough that Cronkite “was a world figure as America’s most celebrated broadcaster.”Independent masthead McCarthy declared: “Such was his aura and influence that when, on his return from a Vietnam trip in 1968, he pronounced that the US could not win the war, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have exclaimed: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America!’ and shortly afterwards announced he would not seek re-election.”
  • Jean-Paul Marthoz, in a blog commentary for the French-language Le Soir of Brussels, wrote that Cronkite was America’s “most trusted man” and added: “In 1968, on his return from a reporting assignment to Vietnam, a conflict that he covered with rigorous impartiality, he declared that the war couldn’t be won, which led President Lyndon Johnson to declare:  ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America.’”

It’s true that Cronkite, on February 27, 1968, pronounced the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” And he suggested that negotiations might prove to be the way out.

But the effects of Cronkite’s commentary were dramatically more modest than the characterizations of Salutin, McCarthy, and Marthoz.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Lyndon Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired, and there’s no certain evidence he ever saw it later, on videotape.

Johnson was not at the White House on February 27, 1968. He was not in front of a television set when Cronkite’s special report aired.

The president then was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie event marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of Johnson’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was engaging in light-hearted banter about Connally’s age. Johnson hardly was bemoaning the loss of an anchorman’s support.

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

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was neither profound nor exceptional in early 1968.

For months before Cronkite’s program, U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to characterize the war effort.

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

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further stated:

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

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Not only was Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment belated; it was mild compared to other commentary at the time.

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial published four days before Cronkite’s report, said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Strong stuff.

Interestingly, Cronkite in his memoir dismissed the supposedly powerful effects of his report on Vietnam. He wrote in memoir, titled A Reporters’ Life and published in 1997, that the “mired in stalemate” assessment represented for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

Cronkite repeated the analogy in promoting the book, telling CNBC that he doubted whether the program “had a huge significance. I think it was a very small straw on a very heavy load [Johnson] was already carrying.”


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The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

News that the Washington Post is exploring the sale of its headquarters building inevitably stirred reminders of the Watergate scandal, supposedly the newspaper’s most memorable exposé.

The Wall Street Journal makes that link in an article today while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

wapo-logo“The Washington, D.C., newsroom where two reporters took down a president may soon be on the block,” the Journal states, referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on America’s greatest political scandal.

While it may make for a catchy “lede” (journalese for a story’s opening paragraph), the reference to the reporters who “took down a president” is wrong-headed: It’s a media myth that simplifies and distorts the forces and factors that led Nixon to quit in disgrace.

Even principals at the PostWoodward among them — have asserted over the years that the newspaper did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. And they weren’t indulging in false modesty in saying so. (Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once said, for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

And as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

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

“Even then,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Nixon quits

‘Nixon got Nixon’

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So why does the mediacentric heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate live on? Why is it so tempting to invoke, as the Journal does today?

Explanations go well beyond a reporter’s need for a catchy lede.

An especially compelling reason for the myth’s tenacity is that it makes accessible and understandable the intricate scandal that was Watergate.

That complexity —the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not readily recalled these days.

The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

What does stand out, though, is the heroic-journalist meme — the appealing if misleading notion that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought Nixon down.

It’s history lite, history made simple.

The myth is endlessly reassuring for journalists, too, suggesting as it does that journalism can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also one of journalism’s self-sustaining tales, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates quite well today.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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London’s ‘Independent’ latest to invoke media myth about Pentagon and Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on January 28, 2013 at 7:40 am

In the debate about women being permitted to join U.S. military combat units, it was inevitable the media myth would resurface about Jessica Lynch and her purported battlefield heroics in Iraq nearly 10 years ago.

The myth has it that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s having fought fiercely in an ambush in Nasiriyah and fed the propaganda to a credulous U.S. news media.

Sure enough, Britain’s Independent newspaper stepped in that myth over the weekend, in an online report about women in the U.S. military.

The newspaper referred to Lynch as a name fresh “in America’s collective memory” and asserted that “initial reports from the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

Lynch was an element of a Pentagon “propaganda war”?

Not so.Independent masthead

Not according to Vernon Loeb, the Washington Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in an electrifying but utterly inaccurate front-page story published April 3, 2003. Loeb has said the Pentagon wasn’t the source of the Post’s story about Lynch, which it pegged to otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”

Under the byline of Loeb and Susan Schmidt, the Post reported that Lynch, then  a 19-year-old Army private in a support unit, kept firing at attacking Iraqis “even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The Post quoted one anonymous official as saying that Lynch “‘was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’”

The story turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the attack at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the deadly ambush in which 11 American soldiers were killed.

Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported, but suffered shattering injuries to her back, legs, and arms in the crash of a Humvee in which she was attempting to flee.

She was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital, from where she was rescued April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special forces team.

As Lynch herself insists, she was no hero (although she has said she could have embraced the Post’s hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser).

The Post, though, has never identified the “U.S. officials” who led it so badly astray.

But we do know that the Pentagon wasn’t the source of the Post’s exaggerated hero-warrior tale: Loeb said so in an interview on Fresh Air, an NPR radio program, in mid-December 2003.

In the interview, Loeb declared flatly:

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

Loeb also said that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb declared, 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.”

Although Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain, the Independent is the latest of many news organizations to have ignored or overlooked them, blithely offering instead the juicy but unsubstantiated claim that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story.”

Lynch_large photo

Private Lynch

The claim is a weak one, even without Loeb’s disclaimer. After all, in the early days of the Iraq War, the Pentagon had little reason to exploit the Lynch case as a way to boost popular support  for the conflict.

As I point out in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong:

“It may be little-recalled now, but the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was widely supported by the American public. Polling data from March and April 2003, the opening days and weeks of the war, show an overwhelming percentage of Americans supported the conflict and believed the war effort, overall, was going well.”

Among those public opinion polls was a Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted in late March and early April 2003 — when Lynch was much in the news. The poll found that eight of 10 Americans felt the war effort was going well, and 71 percent approved of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq situation.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Women at the front: Recalling Jessica Lynch in Iraq

In Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on January 26, 2013 at 1:06 pm
Lynch: Accidental celebrity

Jessica Lynch in 2003

Jessica Lynch, who unwittingly became the best-known Army private of the Iraq War, has added her support to the Obama administration’s plan to end restrictions on women in Army combat units.

Lynch, whose purported battlefield heroics in Iraq proved to be a wild exaggeration by the Washington Post, told a Virginia television station the other day:

“For years women have been fighting for our freedom. They’ve been put in those roles anyway. Whether they are designed for a front line mission, they’re being put in those kind of roles and paths anyway.”

Given what she went through in Iraq, you’d be excused for thinking Lynch would have other views about women at the front.

Her authorized biography, written by Rick Bragg and published in November 2003, presents a disturbing account of her lone exposure to combat.

That came by mistake in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003, when elements of her support unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, made a wrong turn and plunged into Nasiriyah, a city under Iraqi control.

The heavy vehicles and Humvees of the 507th came under withering fire. Lynch was in the backseat of a Humvee, driven by her friend Lori Piestewa; they were trying to escape the Iraqi assault.

The biography, I Am a Solider, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, says this about the attack on her unit, and about what happened to her afterward:

“‘I just wanted it to be over,’ Jessi said. It had been about an hour since the battle began in the city of Nasiriyah, maybe a little longer.

“In fear and resignation, she could not look at it anymore.

“‘I lowered my head to my knees, and I closed my eyes.’

“Just ahead of them, Iraqi soldiers had used a truck to block the road. An American tractor-trailer rumbling just in front of Jessi and Lori’s Humvee came under heavy fire, and, swerving to miss the Iraqi truck, ran off the road just in front of them.

“In the mass of Iraqi fighters, one of them raised a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to his shoulder and sighted the speeding Humvee. He squeezed the trigger.

“Jessi, crouched in the back seat, her arms around her own shoulders, her forehead on her knees, did not feel the round that finally punctured Lori’s control and sent the Humvee bouncing off the road, straight at the five-ton tractor-trailer.

“The last thing she remembered was praying.

“‘Oh God help us.

“‘Oh God, get us out of here.

“‘Oh God, please.’”

The biography says Lynch blacked out in the crash:

“Jessi lost three hours.

“She lost them in the snapping bones, in the crash of the Humvee, in the torment her enemies inflicted on her after she was pulled from it. It all left marks on her, and it is those marks that fill in the blanks of what Jessi lived through on the morning of March 23, 2003.”

The biography (which Lynch has referred to as “my book”) says the Humvee crashed about 7 a.m. that day, “but Jessi and Lori were not taken to the hospital, a military hospital, until about 10 a.m. The hospital was only steps away — minutes away. Still, three hours passed.”

Lori Piestewa died of her wounds. Three other soldiers in the Humvee were killed in the crash or died shortly afterward.

Lynch, who was 19, suffered shattering injuries to her spine, right arm, right foot, and left leg below the knee.

“The records also show,” the biography says, “that she was the victim of anal sexual assault. The records do not tell whether her captors assaulted her almost lifeless, broken body after she was lifted from the wreckage, or if they assaulted her and then broke her bones into splinters until she was almost dead.”

(The allegation of sexual assault was disputed by an Iraqi doctor who treated Lynch at a hospital in Nasiriyah.)

Lynch was a supply clerk in the 507th and had entered the Army not expecting to see combat. The biography quotes Lynch as telling a friend, “‘Don’t worry. We won’t be anywhere near danger.’”

Lynch lingered near death at the Iraqi hospital before being rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Washington Post published an electrifying but thoroughly botched front-page account that said Lynch had fought heroically at Nasiriyah and that despite being shot and stabbed, she fired at attacking Iraqis until she ran out of ammunition and was captured.

In fact, Lynch suffered neither gunshot nor stab wounds.

She never fired a shot at Nasiriyah: Her weapon had jammed.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post  never fully explained how it erred so utterly in presenting the hero-warrior tale about Lynch. The newspaper cited otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” in its account, which appeared beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death.’”Lynch_headline_Post

The story was picked up by news organizations around the world and made Lynch — who never embraced the story — a household name in America.

The hero-warrior tale almost surely was a case of mistaken identify: The exploits the Post erroneously attributed to Lynch most likely were the deeds of Donald R. Walters, an unsung cook-sergeant in Lynch’s unit.

Walters was one of 11 U.S. soldiers killed in the battle of Nasiriyah.


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Oprah as ‘this generation’s Walter Cronkite’?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on January 13, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Here’s a good one: Oprah Winfrey is a latter-day Walter Cronkite, a television personality “capable of massively shifting public sentiment.”

LBJ in Austin

Lyndon Johnson in Austin, February 27, 1968

So writes a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

It’s a ridiculous claim, but not for reasons that may immediately come to mind.

Walter Cronkite was the avuncular anchorman on the CBS Evening News from 1962-81. Oprah Winfrey is an iconic talk-show host, whose appeal may or may not be ebbing.

Her clout is formidable. Cronkite’s was overstated.

But to return to the columnist’s claim:

Drew Sharp, writing in the Free Press about Oprah’s upcoming interview with disgraced international cycling star Lance Armstrong, notes that it’ll be an occasion for “staged news.”

Armstrong, he observes, “made the smart move, agreeing to a 90-minute taped interview with Oprah, which will air on her OWN cable network Thursday. It no doubt will be well watched.”

Sharp also declares, in a passage of particular interest to Media Myth Alert, that Oprah “has become this generation’s Walter Cronkite, capable of massively shifting public sentiment.

“It was,” Sharp adds, “the late CBS anchorman’s pointed commentary 45 years [ago,] following the North Vietnamese’s Tet Offensive in which he argued in a rare editorial that the U.S. couldn’t win the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously said afterward that if he lost Cronkite, he lost Middle America.

“Not long afterward, LBJ opted not to run for reelection in the 1968 presidential campaign.”

In his claims about the effects of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, the columnist indulges in one of American journalism’s most prominent and tenacious media myths.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, there is no evidence that Johnson saw the Cronkite program when it aired on the night of February 27, 1968, or that he viewed it afterward on videotape.

So it’s hard to argue that Johnson could have been much moved by a television report he didn’t see.

The president wasn’t in front of a television set that night. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party (see photo, above) to mark the 51st birthday of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

About the time Cronkite was offering his pessimistic, on-air assessment about the war in Vietnam — that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” — Johnson wasn’t bemoaning a loss of Cronkite’s support; he was saying:

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

Johnson did announce, a month later, that he was not running for reelection to the presidency. But his reasons had little, if anything, to do with Cronkite and the anchorman’s comments about Vietnam.

More significant to Johnson’s decision was his eroding political strength. By late March 1968, he was facing insurgent challenges within his own party from senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

Not only that, but Johnson may have decided long before March 1968 not to seek reelection.

“Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement,” Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point, “I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”

The memoir, by the way, has nothing to say about the Cronkite program of February 1968.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” comment influenced public opinion “massively” or otherwise.

Indeed, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, polls signaled shifts in public opinion against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s program. The anchorman followed rather than led deepening popular doubts about the wisdom of the war.

And until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion that his assessment of the war had much effect, saying it was akin to “another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

To liken Oprah to Cronkite is, of course, more than a little incongruous. But it has been done before.

In a commentary published at Huffington Post in 2007 and titled “Oprah is to Iraq what Cronkite was to Vietnam,” Marty Kaplan asserted that “Oprah may actually be the twenty-first century’s de facto national anchor.”

A more frequent if similarly imprecise comparison is to identify Jon Stewart as a latter-day Cronkite.

But both comparisons are strained and feeble: They seek to reapportion to contemporary contexts influence the legendary Cronkite never really possessed. As such, they succeed only in promoting a media-driven myth.


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‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on January 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

The New York Times considers in a commentary posted yesterday the prospect of “digital wildfires” — how rumor and error spread by social media could give rise to panic and widespread turmoil.

It’s a catchy phrase, “digital wildfires.” But the commentary is largely speculative and, worse, it conjures the panic myth of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938.

“In 1938,” the commentary declares, “thousands of Americans famously mistook a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel ‘War of the Worlds’ for a genuine news broadcast. Police stations were flooded with calls from citizens who believed the United States had been invaded by Martians. …

“Is it conceivable that a misleading post on social media could spark a comparable panic?”

What “panic”?

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio program of October 30, 1938, set off a wildfire of panic is a hoary media myth — a myth so tenaciously held that not even a sustained social media campaign could undo it.

Like many media myths, the tale of the panic broadcast of 1938 is just too engrained, and too delicious, ever to be uprooted and delivered to the ash heap of history. As the Times commentary suggests, it’s an irresistible story, full of  illustrative potential.

But as I discuss in my latest 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.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But most listeners — in overwhelming numbers — recognized the dramatization for what it was, an imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

This conclusion is based on research by Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, who studied the program’s aftermath. His research, while crude by contemporary standards, drew on interviews and a public opinion survey to estimate that at least 6 million people listened to The War of the Worlds program.

Of that number, Cantril estimated as many as 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

But Cantril did not specify what he meant by “frightened,” “disturbed,” and “excited” — terms not synonymous with “panic-stricken.”

As  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.

In short, what radio-induced fright there was that night did not rise to the level of broad panic or hysteria.

Had it — had panic swept the country — trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides. But none were linked to the program, as Michael J. Socolow noted in his fine essay in 2008.

The Times commentary notes that authorities “were flooded with calls” that night. Indeed, telephone volume surged during and immediately after the program, especially in metropolitan New York and New Jersey — ground zero for the fictive Martian invasion in The War of the Worlds show.

Police station, fire departments, and many newspaper offices reported receiving an unusually large number of telephone calls.

But call volume is a crude, and even misleading, marker of fear and alarm.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, increased call volume that night is better understood as “signaling an altogether rational response of people who neither panicked nor became hysterical, but who sought confirmation or clarification from external sources known to be usually reliable.”

Interestingly, the notion that a radio show did create panic gave newspapers an irresistible opportunity to assail their upstart rival medium.

By the late 1930s, radio was an increasingly important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers thus had, as I write, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm. 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 to delight in chastising radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization had set off panic and mass hysteria.


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Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage

In Error, New York Times on December 28, 2012 at 11:29 am

The news media are notorious for seldom looking back in any sustained way to understand and explain their missteps when coverage of a prominent story has been botched.

This tendency was quite apparent in the aftermath of the exaggerated reporting of the mayhem Hurricane Katrina supposedly unleashed in New Orleans in 2005.

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Newtown, Connecticut

It also has been apparent in the two weeks since the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

There can be little dispute that the news media stumbled badly in reporting Adam Lanza’s lethal attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, an assault in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first-grade pupils.

As Andrew Beaujon of Poynter Online noted in an impressively succinct summary of the news media’s most glaring reporting errors:

“Adam Lanza was not buzzed in to Sandy Hook Elementary School …. His mother, Nancy, did not work at the school. He didn’t have an altercation with school officials the day before. He used a Bushmaster rifle, not the Glock and SIG Sauer pistols he was carrying, to carry out his massacre. The children he killed were first-graders, not mostly kindergarteners.

“Adam Lanza’s name was not Ryan.”

Ryan Lanza is the shooter’s brother.

Mistaking the assailant’s name may well endure as the single most memorable of the media’s errors in reporting the Newtown shootings. Just as Brian Ross’ egregious lapse last summer in tying the Colorado-movie theater shooter to the Tea Party movement stands as the most-remembered error in the coverage of that massacre.

Two weeks after the shootings in Connecticut, just how and why the news media failed so often has not been adequately dissected or explained. Not in any sustained or granular way.

When journalists and media critics have paused to consider the flawed reporting, they’ve tended to cite competitive pressures or have shifted blame to anonymous sources, especially those vaguely identified as “law enforcement” officials who provided bum information.

Blaming sources isn’t exculpatory, however. It doesn’t let journalists off the hook, despite an inclination to do so.

In a blog post the day after the shootings, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post wrote:

“The media can do many things; one thing they cannot do is on-the-spot fact-checking of the cops.”

But of course they can. Reporters have an obligation to press the cops for details about how they developed the information they’re passing along.

Journalists aren’t stenographers for the authorities;  they need not be timid or credulous.

Reporters covering unfolding disasters would be well-served to remember Eddie Compass, formerly the police commissioner in New Orleans, who offered graphic accounts of lawlessness in his city following Katrina’s landfall.

Little of Compass’ extravagance proved true.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted New Orleans as swept by mayhem in Katrina’s aftermath. He offered a baffling reply. ‘I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,’ he said. ‘So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.’”

It sure did.

In the misreporting at Newtown, it’s not entirely clear that cops were the sources for the media’s most stunning error.

In the hours after the shootings on December 14, CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti went on the air and to say the shooter’s name was “Ryan” Lanza.

According to a transcript of CNN’s coverage available at the LexisNexis database, Candiotti said:

“The shooter has been identified to me by a source as Ryan Lanza, Ryan Lanza, in his 20s, apparently, we are told from the source, from this area.”

The identification, she said, was “by a source,” a most lazy and opaque sort of attribution. A “source” could be almost anyone, and not necessarily a “law enforcement” official.

In any case, the error about the shooter’s name soon was compounded.

The misidentification was reported by other news organizations in a revealing example of what Av Westin, formerly of ABC News, has called the “out there” syndrome. That is, if other news organizations are “out there” reporting what seems to be an important element of a disaster-related story, pressures mount on rival news outlets to match that information.

The New York Times repeated the misidentification in a report posted online — a report that said:

“Various news outlets identified the shooter as Ryan Lanza.”

The Times’ public editor (or in-house critic), Margaret Sullivan, noted that error in a blog post three days after the shootings.

But Sullivan did not consider the implications of the Times’ having joined in the “out there” syndrome. She offered neither criticism nor rebuke.

She wrote that “some mistakes may be inevitable on a major, fast-moving story, working against brutally demanding deadlines. That’s not an excuse, just a reality.”

Sullivan in a subsequent column seemed to modify that interpretation, writing that the Times “has to stand apart from those news sources that are getting information out in a fast, piecemeal and frequently inaccurate way.”

Fair enough.

Given that early disaster coverage does tend to be accompanied by missteps and error, journalists are well-advised to proceed cautiously. The challenges of filing on “brutally demanding deadlines” should give reporters, and their editors, pause: It should leave them more wary about what they are told and more cautious about what they report.

Greater restraint at such times — coupled with a broader inclination to study and learn from the missteps of disaster coverage — would leave journalists less likely to traffic in claims that prove exaggerated or unfounded.


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‘Not Likely Sent’ article about Hearst’s ‘vow’ a top 50 selection in AEJMC flagship journal

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm

AEJMC, the journalism educators organization, announced yesterday the 50 top articles to have appeared in its flagship journal — and among the selections was “Not Likely Sent,” my 2000 myth-busting study about William Randolph Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.


“Not Likely Sent” was published in the summer 2000 issue of the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

The article challenged as implausible the often-retold anecdote about Hearst’s supposed exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, in which Hearst is said to have declared:

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Remington at the time of purported exchange was in Cuba, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal. Remington spent six days on the island in January 1897, preparing sketches to illustrate aspects of the Cuban insurrection against Spain’s colonial rule.

Among the reasons for dismissing the famous anecdote — which has been invoked over the decades by scores of journalists and historians — is Hearst’s denial, and the implausibility of the supposed exchange.

That is, Spanish censors who controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s message to Remington, had it been sent.

I also pointed out in “Not Likely Sent” that Hearst’s supposed vow ran counter “to the Journals editorial positions in January 1897. The newspaper in editorials at the time expected the collapse of the Spanish war effort and resulting independence for Cuban insurgents. The Journal was neither anticipating nor campaigning for U.S. military intervention to end the conflict.”

The Cuban rebellion, however, ground on and became a stalemate. In April 1898, the United States entered the conflict, principally to end a human rights disaster that was festering in Cuba.

The editor of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Daniel Riffe, said in a statement that selecting the journal’s top 50 articles was “a piece of research in itself.” The process included tapping the advice of his predecessors as editor, as well as consulting citation guides and Google Scholar.

“I finally assembled a list of 50 articles that I hope our members agree have been influential in our field,” Riffe said.

The top 50 articles were selected and announced as part of the centennial celebration of AEJMC – the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Predecessor titles of Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly were Journalism Quarterly and The Journalism Bulletin.

An elaboration of “Not Likely Sent” appeared as a chapter in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Separately, a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, described how Hearst’s purported vow came to be embedded in the lore of American journalism.

Despite the repeated debunkings, however, the anecdote about “furnish the war” lives on — a timeless, pithy, and easily recalled example of the news media at their supposed worst.

As I wrote in the article:

“The Remington-Hearst anecdote is indeed ‘a beautiful story,’ a succinct and delicious tale, one rich in hubris and in swaggering recklessness. It is, however, a story altogether dubious and misleading.

“It suggests a power that the press, including Hearst’s Journal, did not possess, that of propelling the country into a war that it did not want.”


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