W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media’

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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A ‘Cronkite Moment’ in the war on terror? There never was a ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Year studies on April 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm

When Walter Cronkite of CBS News called the Vietnam War a stalemate in 1968, he supposedly set a standard of courage that some journalists yearn desperately to find in contemporary practice.

Did he inspire a 'Brokaw Moment'?

Did he inspire a ‘Brokaw Moment’?

The latest example of such nostalgic longing appeared yesterday, in a column praising Tom Brokaw’s remarks during Sunday’s Meet the Press program about the terrorist bombings at this month’s Boston Marathon.

The surviving of the two suspected bombers reportedly has said the attack was motivated by U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To David Sirota, that signals retributive blowback in America’s war on terror. And in a column posted at the In These Times site (also posted at Salon.com), Sirota lavished praise on Brokaw for having said on Meet the Press:

“But we’ve got to look at the roots of all of this. Because it exists across the whole [Asian] subcontinent and the Islamic world around the world. And I think we also have to examine the use of drones that the United States is involved in. And there are a lot of civilians who are innocently killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

“And I can tell you, having spent a lot of time over there, young people will come up to me on the streets and say, ‘We love America. But if you harm one hair on the head of my sister, I will fight you forever.’ And there is this enormous rage against what they see in that part of the world as a presumptuousness of the United States.”

While not particularly pithy or eloquent, such sentiments qualify Brokaw as “a Walter Cronkite of his age,” Sirota wrote in his column, adding that Brokaw’s “declaration recalls Cronkite’s seminal moment 45 years ago.

“Back in 1968,” Sirota went on, “opponents of the Vietnam War were being marginalized in much the same way critics of today’s wars now are. But when such a revered voice as Cronkite took to television to declare the conflict an unwinnable ‘stalemate,’ he helped create a tipping point whereby Americans began to reconsider their assumptions.

“In similarly making such an assumption-challenging statement, Brokaw has followed in Cronkite’s heroic footsteps,” Sirota declared. His commentary carried the headline, “A Cronkite Moment for the War on Terror.”

Whether media historians one day will refer to the “Brokaw Moment” in the war on terror is questionable: I doubt whether Brokaw’s remarks on Meet the Press will prove very memorable.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is embellishing the so-called “Cronkite Moment” as a kind of lofty and inspiring standard of journalistic conduct, as a singular moment of memorable courage.

It wasn’t.

Now, there is no doubt that Walter Cronkite declared that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. He said so on February 27, 1968, in a special report that aired on CBS television.

But over time, the effects of Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation have been inflated out of proportion to the decidedly modest impact it had in 1968. Sirota’s column is emblematic of that tendency to inflate.

After all, it was scarcely original or provocative to describe the Vietnam War as a “stalemate” in early 1968. In his well-regarded study of that year, Mark Kurlansky wrote that Cronkite’s view was “hardly a radical position” at the time.

News organizations such as the New York Times had invoked “stalemate” as early as the summer of 1967 in reporting and commenting about Vietnam.

Indeed, a front-page new analysis about the war, published in the Times in August 1967,  carried the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

The evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” comment “helped create a tipping point” in U.S. public opinion about the war.

The “tipping point” had been reached months before.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polling had detected shifts in views about the war long before Cronkite’s program. In a very real sense, Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening popular doubts about the wisdom of the war.

For example, a Gallup Poll conducted in early October 1967 – 4½ months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation — reported that 47 percent of respondents, a plurality, said it was a mistake to have sent U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam. A little more that two years earlier, Gallup had reported that only 24 percent of respondents felt that way.

Journalists detected other evidence in late 1967 of a shift in views about the war. Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, wrote in December 1967 that the previous five or six months had been “a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

Opponents of the war hardly “were being marginalized” in early 1968. They were increasingly outspoken, and prominent.

As for Cronkite, he pooh-poohed for years the notion his “mired in stalemate” observation was of much consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for President Lyndon Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying on a CNN program in 1999:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” lies in the immediate and visceral effects Cronkite’s “stalemate” comment supposedly had on Johnson.

It often has been said that Johnson watched the Cronkite program at the White House and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” remark, turned to an aide or aides and said something along these lines:

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

Johnson: Not in front of a TV

Johnson: Not in front of a television set

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson wasn’t at the White House when the Cronkite program aired. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was uttering his “mired in stalemate” opinion, Johnson wasn’t bemoaning the loss of Cronkite. He was making light of Connally’s age.

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

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds
for linking to this post.

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10 years on: WaPo, Jessica Lynch, and the battle at Nasiriyah

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 23, 2013 at 5:45 am

Lynch_headline_PostThe first major battle of the Iraq War, the ambush 10 years ago today of an U.S. support unit, gave rise to one the most woeful moments in recent war correspondence — the Washington Post’s thoroughly inaccurate front-page report about a 19-year-old U.S. Army private named Jessica Lynch.

The Post claimed that Lynch, a waif-like supply clerk who never expected to see combat, had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasiriyah, firing at attacking Iraqis until her ammunition ran out.

It was an electrifying report, conjuring as it did cinematic images of an improbable female Rambo.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch

As it turned out, it was one of those remarkably rare news stories that’s spectacularly wrong but reverberates long after its initial publication.

The Post’s article had the effect of:

  • turning Lynch, through no exceptional effort of her own, into the best-known U.S. enlisted soldier of the Iraq War
  • obscuring the heroics of an Army cook-sergeant who was captured, then killed, by Iraqis
  • prompting the rise of media myths that continue to distort understanding about what happened at Nasiriyah.

Ten years on and the Post has never fully accounted for its botched reporting. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so stunning that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

That story was published April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

The Post said Lynch was shot and stabbed “when Iraqi forces closed in on her position,” and based its account on otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials.”

The story was reported from Washington, D.C.: No journalists were with Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, when its convoy of trucks and support vehicles made a wrong turn and mistakenly entered Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003.

The convoy fell under attack and 11 U.S. soldiers were killed in the fighting. Among them was Sgt. Donald Walters, who had put down covering fire as his comrades tried to flee the ambush.

Walters was taken prisoner and soon after was executed by his Iraqi captors. So far as is known, his killers have never been captured.

It emerged months later that Walters most likely performed the battlefield heroics misattributed to Lynch, who never embraced the Post’s account.

The mistaken identity stemmed apparently from mistranslation of Iraqi battlefield transmissions.

The Post, though, never showed any interest in that aspect of the story — or in Walters’ bravery.

Sgt. Donald Walters

Sgt. Donald Walters

His name has appeared in only four news reports published by the Post, the most recent of which was an Associated Press dispatch in May 2004 which said “details of [Walters'] actions remarkably resemble a story circulated in The Washington Post and other news media, based on anonymous sources, describing how Lynch had fought until her ammunition ran out.”

The reference to “other news media” was misleading, though. It was the Post, alone, that thrust the hero-warrior about Lynch’s battlefield heroics into worldwide circulation.

It was the Post that said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” at Nasiriyah.

And none of it was true: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.

She never fired a shot in Iraq. Her weapon jammed during the fighting.

She tried to escape the attack in the back of a Humvee, her head lowered to her knees in prayer. The fleeing Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, sending the vehicle hurtling into a disabled tractor-trailer.

Lynch suffered shattering injuries to her arms, legs, and back in the crash. Four fellow soldiers were killed.

The Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch began unraveling in the spring of 2003. As it did, a toxic narrative arose that the Pentagon (or, more broadly, the “military“) had concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude and cynical attempt to boost public support for the war.

The narrative is perversely appealing — and utterly false.

Mythical, even.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, one of the authors of the Post’s botched hero-warrior story, Vernon Loeb, has stated unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.

In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb said:

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

Loeb said they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

Loeb made clear he that “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.”

Loeb’s remarks have long been in the public domain. But they’ve been mostly ignored.

We know from Loeb who the Post’s sources weren’t.

On the 10th anniversary of the battle of Nasiriyah, it’s high time for the Post to say who they were, to set the record straight and clarify at long last how one of the most memorable yet twisted narratives of the Iraq War came to be.

WJC

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Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez in DC, plans digital newspaper back home

In Newspapers on March 20, 2013 at 6:13 am
Sanchez_Cato

Yoani Sanchez in DC

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s most prominent and outspoken dissident blogger, took her international tour to Washington yesterday, vowing to promote “responsible, objective journalism” on an island that has known anything but since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Sanchez, in remarks at the libertarian Cato Institute, said she plans to establish an independent digital newspaper upon her return to Cuba, one of the world’s most inhospitable places for searching journalism.

Sanchez, 37, has won international fame as a blogger who has stood up to the regime’s hostility while posting pithy ruminations and slice-of-life essays at her Generación Y (“Generation Y”) site, which has attracted a wide following outside of Cuba.

She is on an 80-day world tour, accepting honors and honors that she has won over the years but has not been allowed to collect. Sanchez told the audience at the Cato Institute that Cuban authorities denied her applications to travel abroad no fewer than 20 times over the past five years.

She was granted a passport in January, after the communist regime of Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor as president, eased travel restrictions.

She speculated that in permitting her to travel abroad, the regime may have hoped that she would not return to Cuba.

But, she declared, “I’m not going to stay in another country,  and I’m not going to be afraid” of what the regime may have in store upon her return.

She said she likely will be the target of surveillance and harassment back in Cuba, but added that her prominence and outspokenness serve as “a protective shield,” making it less likely that Cuban authorities will treat her harshly.

Sanchez is dark-eyed, petite, and strikingly poised. She seems to wear the mantle of international fame comfortably, without evident haughtiness. Swaggering she is not.

She spoke through an interpreter, Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York. Henken helped organize her visit to the United States, which included a stop in New York City to collect the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, given by Columbia University to recognize journalism that promotes inter-American understanding. She won the award in 2009.

Sanchez said yesterday that she never expected to gain international prominence through her blogging, and characterized her fame as “a joke of fate” and “a cross” that she bears.

Her travels outside Cuba — she visited Brazil and the Czech Republic before arriving last week in the United States — certainly have heightened her international profile. And her intention to start an non-governmental newspaper in Cuba could place her on a collision course with the Castro regime.

Sanchez said the newspaper she envisions will be digital-only, at least at first. That’s because the regime would outlaw an independent print newspaper as anti-government propaganda, she said.

Cuba’s media landscape is among the most repressive in the world. The non-governmental organization Freedom House ranks Cuba 190th among 197 countries and territories it assesses in its annual press-freedom report. North Korea is last in the Freedom House rankings; Finland, Norway, and Sweden are first.

Sanchez said social media platforms such as blogs and Twitter “have helped us create small cracks in the wall of censorship” in Cuba. But she said she’s under no illusion that social media will seriously threaten the regime. (Sanchez’s Twitter account has more than 450,000 followers.)

“By themselves,” she said, “these aren’t the instruments that will bring democracy to Cuba.”

Even so, she said, “you can’t imagine the speed with which information is circulating in Cuba.” It often moves hand-to-hand, in that someone uses a thumb drive to download information from the Internet — access to which is severely restricted — and passes the thumb drive from person to person, in what Sanchez called a “black market of information.”

Sanchez, who spoke without notes, also traced the recent trajectory of dissidence in Cuba. It was 10 years ago, she noted, when the Castro regime imposed a sweeping crackdown, rounding up dissidents and journalists and sentencing them to lengthy prison terms.

What is often called Cuba’s “Black Spring” crackdown took place when the world’s attention was trained on the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

WJC

Many thanks to Ed Driscoll, subbing at Instapundit,
for linking to this post.

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Confused and illogical: WaPo commentary on effects of ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television, Washington Post on March 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

The Washington Post today offers one of the more baffling and illogical characterizations of the supposed effects of Walter Cronkite’s mythical report about Vietnam, which aired in February 1968.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite’s assessment supposedly was so exceptional, so influential on American policy and politics, that it has come to be call the “Cronkite Moment.”

A commentary in today’s Post addresses that occasion in a broader discussion of hostility between the news media and the White House. In referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the commentary says:

“Walter Cronkite’s on-air report from Vietnam — which the president did not see — supposedly elicited his famous lament: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’ Shortly thereafter, Johnson would make his most memorable television appearance, announcing that he would not run for president in 1968.”

How’s that? Johnson “did not see” the Cronkite report; even so, it packed such wallop that Johnson knew without watching that he had “lost Cronkite”?

Who’s editing this stuff?

Not only is that passage confused and illogical: It’s historically inaccurate.

Let’s unpack the passage:

  • Cronkite’s report was aired February 27, 1968, on CBS television. In closing, the anchorman offered the comparatively mild assessment that U.S. forces were “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam — an assessment reflecting the conventional wisdom that had been circulating for months among the news media in Washington and Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital.
  • Johnson did not see Cronkite’s report: When it aired, the president was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John B. Connally, a long-time political ally.
  • There’s no persuasive evidence or documentation that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Or anything close to that statement.  Indeed, versions of what Johnson purportedly said vary markedly — and such variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.
  • Nearly five weeks after Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic party’s nomination for president. But Cronkite’s downbeat assessment about the war had nothing to do with Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection (see below).

In the days following Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson remained outwardly hawkish about the war in Vietnam. In mid-March 1968, for example, he traveled Minnesota to deliver a rousing speech in which he urged “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam.

Johnson punctuated his remarks in Minnesota by pounding the lectern and jabbing his finger in the air. “We love nothing more than peace,” he declared, “but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.” The president disparaged critics of the war as being inclined to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection stemmed from at least two sources: his health and his rivals for the Democratic nomination for president.

There’s evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967 or before, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency in part because of concerns about his health. “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.”

Johnson’s announcement not to seek another term came after insurgent Democratic candidate Eugene McCarthy had won more than 40 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire presidential primary on March 12, 1968, and after had Johnson nemesis Robert F. Kennedy had entered the race for the Democratic nomination on March 16.

Johnson, moreover, was facing near-certain defeat in the Wisconsin primary, on April 2, 1968.

Those were considerations weighing on Johnson on March 31, 1968, when he said he would not seek reelection. Cronkite’s remarks about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, were not a factor.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the purported “Cronkite Moment,” when scrutinized, “dissolves as illusory—a chimera, a media-driven myth.”

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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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)

Woodward
(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.

WJC

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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.

THUMB_RushLimbaugh

Limbaugh

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.

Cronkite

Cronkite

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'

Woodward

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.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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