W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

Following the money on 37th anniversary of Nixon’s fall

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on August 9, 2011 at 12:55 am

Nixon resigns, 1974

It’s somehow fitting on this, the 37th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, to direct attention to the myth and hyperbole that embrace the best-known line of the Watergate scandal, the line that supposedly helped bring him down.

That line, of course, is “follow the money,” which purportedly was crucial advice given the Washington Post by a super-secret, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat.”

Follow the money” was said to have been so telling and effective that it’s still cited as exemplary guidance applicable in journalism, politics, and finance.

Just yesterday, for example, Barry Nolan, a journalist and contributor to Boston Magazine’sBoston Daily” blog, invoked the famous phrase, writing:

“Any time you really want to know why a vote happened the way it did, the single best piece of advice ever given came from ‘Deep Throat,’ the shadowy tipster in the Watergate scandal. ‘Follow the money,’ he told the Washington Post reporters.”

It may seem like stellar advice, but it’s guidance that the “Deep Throat” source offered only in the movies.

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” is Watergate’s most famous made-up line.

The phrase was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

“Follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, take down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Nor did “follow the money” appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation.

Nor did “Deep Throat” — who was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — utter the line in his periodic meetings with Woodward. (And Felt/”Deep Throat” didn’t meet Bernstein until 2008.)

Follow the money” was memorably intoned not by Mark Felt but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.

As I’ve noted, Holbrook turned in a marvelous performance as a tormented, conflicted, and stealthy “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such conviction and steely assurance, that it seemed for all the world to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice certainly neither would have unraveled Watergate nor led him to Nixon.

Nixon resigned 37 years ago today not because he misused campaign funds but because he sought to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

The simplified follow-the-money  interpretation of Watergate effectively deflects attention from the decisive forces that ultimately forced Nixon from office.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s intricacy and dimension 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.

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

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

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India high court order invokes phony Watergate line

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

Two Supreme Court judges in India last month turned to Watergate’s most famous made-up line in ordering an investigation into large sums of money believed stashed in banks abroad.

The judges in their order cited the made-up line as if it had been genuine advice from a high-level source to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post  during the newspaper’s investigation of the Watergate scandal.

The line is “follow the money” — and it had no role whatsoever in the Watergate scandal.

Follow the money” was never uttered by Woodward’s stealthy source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The line appears nowhere in the All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate reporting for the Post.

Nor did the passage appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post before June 1981 — nearly seven years after the scandal reached its denouement with President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Many people and many news outlets over the years have cited “follow the money” as if it were real, as if it had been advice to Woodward that really worked.

Just last week, for example, a column in London’s high-brow Financial Times newspaper described “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate. And a column posted at Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago also repeated “follow the money” as if it had been vital guidance to uncovering Watergate.

But finding its way into a high court order probably represents a first for “follow the money.”

As noted in a Bloomberg news service report yesterday, the two judges — B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Singh Nijjar — invoked “follow the money” at the outset of the order they released early last month.

Credulously, the judges wrote:

“‘Follow the money’ was the short and simple advice given by the secret informant, within the American Government, to Bob Woodward, the journalist from Washington Post, in aid of his investigations of the Watergate Hotel break in.”

So how is it that such errors are made? What explains the impressive reach and popularity of this appealing but contrived statement?

A partial explanation is that “follow the money” seems just too good, too delicious, not to be true. It’s in the class of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain: It’s a quotation that really ought to true.

And as I point out in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war.’ … Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

The popularity of “follow the money” goes beyond appealing pithiness and is rooted in the dramatic quality of All the President’s Men, the most-watched movie ever made about Watergate.

The “Deep Throat” character was played in All the President’s Men by the actor Hal Holbrook, who turned in a marvelous performance.

In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, the shadowy, raspy-voiced Holbrook told the Woodward character (played by Robert Redford):

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet insistence that it truly seemed to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal. And the popularity of the movie carried “follow the money” into the vernacular.

But such guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken the reporter only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than the improper use of campaign monies.

Nixon was toppled not by heroic journalists who followed a money trail, but by irrefutable evidence captured on audiotapes that he had ordered the cover up Watergate’s signal crime, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

WJC

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The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

The single phrase associated most often with Watergate surely is “follow the money” — guidance supposedly given to Washington Post reporters covering the scandal in the early 1970s.

“Follow the money” also is the best-known made-up line of Watergate.

The statement is only as real as images projected on the screen: “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the Watergate book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But because it sounded so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the vernacular.

So it’s commonly believed that “follow the money” was guidance uttered by the  Post’s high-level secret source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The usually sober and usually well-reported Financial Times of London yesterday invoked “follow the money” as if it were genuine, stating in a column on financial matters:

“’Follow the money’ might have been the mantra for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the Watergate scandal. But ‘follow the debt’ would be a better way of summing up where investors should be looking for the next bubble.”

We’ll leave “follow the debt” to bubble-seeking investors.

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is the reference to “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate.

No way was it Watergate’s “mantra.”

The line appeared in no Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Moreover, “follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. The book came out in June 1974, a couple of months before Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

So the phrase was no “mantra.”

What pressed “follow the money” into the vernacular was the marvelous performance of actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a conflicted, shadowy, even tormented “Deep Throat” character. In a memorable, late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character (played by Robert Redford):

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

But had it really been offered to Woodward (“Deep Throat” never met Bernstein during Watergate), “follow the money” would have taken him only so far.

Watergate, after all, was much broader than the misuse of campaign funds.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was  his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension 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.

“Even then,” I write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Heeding advice to “follow-the-money” scarcely would have enabled investigators to uncover the decisive evidence about Nixon’s misconduct.

WJC

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More media myths from CounterPunch

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

CounterPunch touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”

It’s building a reputation for indulging in media-driven myths, too.

Since mid-March, essays posted at CounterPunch have:

CounterPunch has indulged yet again in media myth, in a commentary in its weekend edition about Rupert Murdoch’s troubled media empire.

CounterPunch claimed the tough old media mogul has “surpassed William Randolph Hearst,” press baron of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “in practicing yellow journalism.”

The commentary invoked the hoary media myth about Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

According to CounterPunch, Hearst said: “Get me the photos and I’ll get you the war.”

That was, CounterPunch added, “Hearst’s 1898 dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

Provocative tale. But it’s pure media myth.

Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

Among the reasons:  The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow — a cable sent to artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba — has never turned up.

More significantly, as I point out Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about Hearst’s purported vow suffers from “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.”

That is, it would have been absurd and illogical for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In addition, the Spanish colonial authorities who ruled Cuba closely controlled and censored incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic: They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary telegram, had it been sent.

But in fact, there was, as I write in Getting It Wrong, no chance that telegrams would have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.

So “furnish the war” (or, “provide the war”) wasn’t at all Hearst’s “dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

That Hearst helped bring on the war with Spain is a media myth, too.

It’s a myth dismantled in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I pointed out that the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War.

“It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1897, when Remington arrived in Havana on assignment for Hearst.

WJC

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An outbreak of ‘follow the money,’ that phony Watergate line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

From Oregon to Canada to India, news outlets turned yesterday to Watergate’s most famous made-up phrase, treating the line as if it were genuine.

Felt: Not his line

The line is “follow the money,” which supposedly was vital guidance that a secret source code-named “Deep Throat” gave to the Washington Post during its Watergate investigation in 1972-74.

The passage was offered up credulously by these news outlets yesterday:

  • The Huffington Post, in (yet another) commentary about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The commentary declared: “During the Washington Post‘s investigative reporting of President [Richard] Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, it’s [sic] source, ‘Deep Throat’ gave the reporters the best advice. ‘Deep Throat’ said that the truth would be discovered if they ‘follow the money.’ They did and it ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
  • The Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon, in a column about the phone-hacking scandal: “As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, ‘Follow the money.’”
  • The Business News Network in Canada, in a blog post about interest rates in that country: “I’ll take the advice of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent most famously known as Deep Throat, the key source in Bob Woodward’s Watergate investigation: follow the money.”
  • The Hindu newspaper in India, in a commentary about suspected banking improprieties: “‘Follow the money’ was the advice given by the secret informant within the government to Bob Woodward of Washington Post at the beginning of the Watergate scandal.”

As those cases suggest, “follow the money” is impressively versatile. Its popularity seems limitless.

But however appealing and catchy, “follow the money” is contrived.

The phrase was never uttered by the “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Woodward as Watergate unfolded. (“Deep Throat” was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI. Felt never spoke during Watergate with Woodward’s reporting partner, Carl Bernstein.)

According to a database of Washington Post content, the phrase “follow the money” appeared in no news article or editorial about Watergate before 1981.

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, which came out in 1974.

The derivation of the passage lies in a scene in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie was released to much fanfare in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon resigned the presidency for his guilty role in obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.

What pressed “follow the money” into the popular consciousness was an outstanding performance turned in by actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a twitchy, conflicted, shadowy “Deep Throat.” In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But the guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken him only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than a case of improper use of campaign monies.

In the end, Nixon was toppled by his efforts to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As a simplistic key to explaining the scandal, the follow-the-money interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled Watergate and forced Nixon from office.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension 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.

“Even then,” I write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

WJC

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Tarring Murdoch with Hearst’s evil ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

Rupert Murdoch’s much-anticipated hearing yesterday before a Parliament committee was hardly very dramatic — save for the assault on the tough old media mogul by a chucklehead wielding a shaving cream-pie.

The hearing, which centered around the misconduct of journalists formerly in Murdoch’s employ, was more farce and tedium than high-noon encounter that threatened Murdoch’s far-reaching media empire.

Murdoch, who is 80 and clearly doddering, even won a measure of sympathy as victim of the none-too-bright shaving cream-pie attack.

What was fairly remarkable was that in the hearing’s aftermath at least a couple of U.S. commentators turned credulously to a hoary media myth to make points about Murdoch’s supposedly evil ways.

Hearst: Made no vow

The media myth is the tale that press baron William Randolph Hearst, in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, why that tale is almost surely apocryphal for reasons that include Hearst’s denial and the improbable context in which his message supposedly was sent.

One of the pundits invoking the media myth was Milos Stehlik, a commentator on WBEZ, an FM radio station in Chicago.

Stehlik likened Murdoch to Hearst and Charles Foster Kane, the fictional media baron in Citizen Kane, the 1941 movie loosely based on Hearst’s life.

“Kane, Hearst and Murdoch … share a political activism which pretends to help the media-consuming masses while, in reality, mostly helped their own privileged class,” Stehlik declared, before invoking the “furnish the war” myth as if it were genuine.

“Hearst,” he said, “told artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba, to send dispatches about the war. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war in Cuba. Hearst famously told Remington to just provide him the pictures, and he would furnish the war.”

Meanwhile in Seattle, Jon Talton, a newspaper columnist on economic issues, posted a commentary that began this way:

“Press lord Rupert Murdoch isn’t accused of doing anything some of his notorious forebears wouldn’t have attempted given the technology. ‘You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,’ William Randolph Hearst is said to have instructed his Cuba correspondents as he ginned up circulation on the eve of the Spanish-American War.”

If Hearst had made the vow, it wouldn’t have been “on the eve of the Spanish-American War,” as Talton wrote in his column for the Seattle Times. It would have been in January 1897 — 15 months before the war began.

That was when Remington arrived in Havana, on a brief assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington soon tired of the assignment and, the myth has it, cabled Hearst, stating:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst, in New York, supposedly replied by stating:

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

The anecdote’s sole original source was a blustering, cigar-chomping journalist named James Creelman, who recounted the tale in his 1901 memoir, On the Great Highway.

Creelman, though, did not explain how he heard about the Remington-Hearst exchange. It couldn’t have been first hand because at the time Remington was in Cuba, Creelman was in Spain, on assignment for the Journal.

That means Creelman could only have learned about the tale second-hand or, as is more likely, just made it up.

Significantly, the context of the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange makes no sense.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

The rebellion was a vicious conflict that began in early 1895; by early 1897, it had reached islandwide proportion. As such, the rebellion attracted much attention in U.S. newspapers, including those published by Hearst.

So what may prompt pundits to turn credulously and not infrequently to the anecdote about Hearst and his supposed wickedness?

Because it’s arguably the most deliciously evil tale in journalism history, a tale that reveals Hearst’s ruthlessness and his warmongering. It’s a tale about journalism at its most sinister and malign, a tale wrapped in a dark and arrogant pledge to bring on a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

And these days, it’s a handy if indirect way of tarring Murdoch, by associating him with Hearst in the exclusive club of vile and villainous media magnates.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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The digital age ‘equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths on July 7, 2011 at 9:02 am

Anthony mug shot

The stunning acquittal of Casey Anthony on the most serious charges in the slaying of her 2-year-old daughter has invited comparisons to the outcome of O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in 1995.

Those comparisons are mostly misleading.

The “Media File” blog of the Reuters news agency, for example, likened the Anthony verdict to the digital age “equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial.”

Simpson was found not guilty in October 1995 of the stabbing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

“Media File,” which was one of several outlets to detect parallels in the two cases, noted:

“Word of the verdict spread like wildfire … making a return to a normal life for newly-famous Anthony as unlikely as it was for already-famous Simpson 16 years ago.”

The blog also declared:

“Just as some greeted the Simpson verdict with tears and disbelief, there was much the same reaction about the Anthony verdict, including other mothers and daughters who railed against the verdict on the courthouse steps.

“Unlike OJ, who was accused of stabbing his [former] wife and one of her friends to death in a fit of jealous rage, there didn’t seem to be even the smallest cheering section for Anthony. Then again she was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, whose skeletal remains were found near the family home with duct tape dangling from her skull.

“Anthony’s defense was considerably less adamant than Simpson’s ‘100% not guilty’ plea, but, like Simpson, she did not take the stand in her own defense.”

While interesting, the parallels are mostly superficial and unrevealing.

The Anthony proceedings in Florida hardly were in the league of the O.J. trial in Los Angeles.

Casey Anthony, unlike Simpson, was no national celebrity before she was tried on charges of killing her daughter, Caylee.

As Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who lost the Simpson trial, said of Anthony:

“She never wowed the nation with her athletic prowess, shilled in countless car commercials, or entertained in film comedies.” Simpson had been a star football player, a pitchman for the Hertz car rental company, and a supporting actor in movies such as The Naked Gun.

Race — a central, defining factor in Simpson’s trial — was absent in the Anthony trial.

As such, the verdict in her case, surprising though it was, prompted nothing akin to the divisive, clashing reactions that greeted Simpson’s acquittal: Many whites reacted with shock and disbelief while many blacks cheered the outcome.

Significantly, the Anthony case produced nothing akin to the moment at the end of the Simpson trial, when the country held its collective breath and awaited the verdicts.

The Simpson jury deliberated less than four hours before deciding the case on October 2, 1995.  The hapless judge who presided over the 134-day trial, Lance Ito, announced that the verdicts would be read the following day, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, 1 p.m. Eastern.

As that hour approached on October 3, 1995, the country seemed almost to shut down. The New York Times reported that for 10 minutes, from 1 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. Eastern, “people didn’t work. They didn’t go to math class. They didn’t make phone calls. They didn’t use the bathroom. They didn’t walk the dog.

“They listened to the O.J. Simpson verdicts,” in what the newspaper accurately called “an eerie moment of national communion, in which the routines and rituals of the country were subsumed by an unquenchable curiosity.

“Millions of people in millions of places seemed to spend 10 spellbinding minutes doing exactly the same thing.”

Those minutes represented an exceptional occasion of collective anticipation, an almost incomparable moment.

For the collective anticipation they generated, the final moments in the Simpson case were rivaled perhaps only by the first manned lunar landing in July 1969.

WJC

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The journos who saved us

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Murrow: Savior?

At their extreme, media-driven myths are hero-worshipping devices, invoked to venerate journalists as saviors.

Thankfully, such treatment is rare, and typically reserved for such journalists the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the Watergate reporting duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Brian Unger, host of a history program on cable television, indulged in a bit of journalists-idolatry in compiling for an Entertainment Weekly blog a list of a dozen heroic figures from TV shows and the movies.

On the list was Ed Murrow, whom Unger praised for “saving us from someone who pretended to be a great American patriot, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Also selected were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie stars who played Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President’s Men. “Armed only with a pen,” Unger wrote, “they saved the country from itself.”

Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible.

Murrow hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March 1954.

The show was aired four years after McCarthy began his communists-in-government witch-hunt, and four years after muckraking columnist Drew Pearson piercingly challenged and punctured many of McCarthy’s claims.

Pearson

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow in the days after the show felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Years later, Murrow’s CBS colleague, Eric Severaid, chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

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

As I write in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Americans in early 1954 weren’t “hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

By then they knew, thanks to the work of journalists such as Pearson.

Murrow no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the country from itself.”

Whatever that means.

It is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such subpoena-wielding entities as special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI.

“Even then,” I write 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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting” to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

Interestingly, principals at the Washington Post over the years have scoffed at the mythical and mediacentric interpretation that the newspaper brought down Nixon.

In 2005, for example, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Woodward, himself, declared in 2004, in an interview with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

But undoubtedly it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the country.

All the President’s Men easily is the most-viewed movie made about Watergate. And as I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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‘Sneakily patriotic’ movies that promote media myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth-promoters are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

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

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

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

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something to that effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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