W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Murrow’

Marking five years: The best of Media Myth Alert

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Scandal, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 31, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Media Myth Alert today marks its fifth anniversary — an occasion fitting to revisit the top posts since the blog went live on October 31, 2009, with the objectives of calling out the appearance and publication of media myths and helping to promote my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Here are the top five of the more than 640 posts at Media Myth Alert. (A separate post today will revisit five other top items posted at Media Myth Alert.)

The top posts all were about prominent topics, all received a fair amount of attention in the blogosphere and beyond, and all were represented disclosures found only at Media Myth Alert.

Krakauer quietly retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11, 2011): This post disclosed the walk-back by author Jon Krakauer from claims in his 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003.

Krakauer book coverThose claims were unattributed in the book — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory.

It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve pointed out that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the botched story about Lynch has allowed for the emergence not only of bogus allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a tenacious false narrative that the Pentagon concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit, which was ambushed in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq in the first days of the Iraq War.

Walters was taken prisoner by Iraqi irregulars, and shot and killed.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3, 2012): The “napalm girl” photograph was one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — and remains a source of media myth.

Nick Ut's Pulitzer-winning image (AP/Boston Globe)

Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning image (AP)

The photograph was taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press on June 8, 1972, and showed terror-stricken Vietnamese children running from an errant aerial napalm attack. The central figure of the image was a naked, 9-year-old girl screaming from her burns.

So powerful was the photograph that it is sometimes said — erroneously — that it hastened an end to the war. Another myth is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. aircraft, a version repeated by the New York Times in May 2012, in an obituary of an Associated Press photo editor, Horst Faas.

The Times’ obituary claimed that the “napalm girl” photograph showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack, and I pointed this out in an email to the Times. I noted that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

An editor for the Times, Peter Keepnews, replied, in what clearly was a contorted attempt to avoid publishing a correction:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

Of course the aircraft’s manufacturer was not at all relevant as to who carried out the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former senior Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted for weeks before publishing an obscure sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a muddled and begrudging acknowledgement of error — hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, who had asserted in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29, 2013): The first-ever post at Media Myth Alert was a brief item about Orson Welles’ clever and famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938. Welles’ show, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, supposedly was so terrifying that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

That’s a media myth, one that circulates every year, at the approach of Halloween.

Welles_monument

Orson Welles

In 2013, at the 75th anniversary of Welles’ program, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds in a much-anticipated “American Experience” documentary that turned out to be quite a disappointment. PBS managed not only to make The War of the Worlds seem snoozy and tedious; it missed the opportunity to revisit the well-known but much-misunderstood radio program in fresh and revealing ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.”

The PBS program failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

And it failed to consider the growing body of scholarship which has impugned the conventional wisdom and has found that The War of the Worlds program sowed neither chaos nor widespread alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of Welles, the program’s 23-year-old star.

My critique was endorsed by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18, 2011): Few media myths are as enduring as the hero-journalist trope about of Watergate. It holds that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post — guided by Woodward’s clandestine source, code-named “Deep Throat” — exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

It’s an easy-to-remember tale that cuts through the considerable complexity of Watergate and, as such, has become the dominant narrative of the scandal.

But it’s a history-lite version of Watergate, a media-centric version that the Post itself has mostly eschewed and dismissed over the years. (Woodward once put it this way: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Watergate marker_cropped

Marker with the error

A measure of how engrained Watergate’s dominant narrative has become can be seen in the historical marker that went up in August 2011 outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Woodward conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his “Deep Throat” source.

The marker, as I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

That’s not so.

Such obstruction-of-justice evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did.

But Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) did not share it with Woodward.

The “Deep Throat” garage is to be razed to permit the construction of two commercial and residential towers, the Post reported in June 2014. Interestingly, the Post’s article about the planned demolition repeated nearly verbatim the key portion of the marker’s description, stating:

“Felt … provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which is still wrong, even if printed in the newspaper.

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17, 2011): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University used to feature a quotation attributed to Murrow — a quotation that was only half-true.

Soon after I asked the dean about the provenance of the suspicious quotation, it was taken down.

The quotation read:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow: It was a passage in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

Murrow in 1954

 Not Murrow’s line

The second sentence of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In mid-February 2011, I noted that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s first appearance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak, who said he believed the Web page containing the suspect quote had been developed before his arrival at Washington State in 2009, referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the ‘loyal opposition’ quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

The bogus Murrow quote about “the loyal opposition” has popped up before.

For example, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq, Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage — and claimed Murrow was its author.

WJC

Other memorable posts at Media Myth Alert:

60 years on, CBS extols Murrow show on McCarthy as TV ‘turning point’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on March 9, 2014 at 9:33 am

Predictably perhaps, CBS has recalled Edward R. Murrow’s mythical takedown of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy 60 years ago as “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

Murrow’s report about McCarthy’s communists-in-government witchhunt aired March 9, 1954, on the CBS program See It Now. Since then, the show has been hailed as television’s “finest half-hour” and as a moment of exemplary courage in broadcast journalism.

In reality, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy and did so “only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

Critical contemporaneous reporting about McCarthy and his tactics included the New York Post’s 17-part exposé in 1951. The Post’s series was raw, aggressive, unflattering, and insulting, and made no bow to even-handedness.

The installments of the series were accompanied by a logo that said “Smear Inc.”

In the days immediately after his See It Now program about McCarthy, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter,” according to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the New York Post.

“He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago,” Turk wrote.

So it is imprecise to assert that Murrow took down McCarthy. Indeed, Fred W. Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer,  rejected the notion that the See It Now program was pivotal in McCarthy’s fall.

Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

McCarthy: Brutish

McCarthy: Brutish

But none of that figured in the tribute to Murrow that aired yesterday on CBS This Morning Saturday program.

In introducing the segment, co-host Anthony Mason flatly declared that Murrow’s See It Now report about McCarthy was “a turning point in the history of television — and of CBS News.”

How so was left unexplained.

The segment included comments by Douglas Brinkley, an historian and CBS consultant, who invoked a central media myth about the See It Now program, asserting that McCarthy was “a menace on the loose until he met head-on with Edward R. Murrow.” As if Murrow was the only journalist to stand up to McCarthy. Which he wasn’t.

McCarthy had no more implacable or persistent foe in journalism than Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist and radio commentator who began challenging the senator’s claims about communists in government almost as soon as he raised them in February 1950.

Pearson was aggressive in his reporting and in his commentary about McCarthy. On his radio program, Pearson likened the senator’s tactics to the witchcraft trials of the 17th century. Such characterizations angered McCarthy, who often presented himself as little more than an unrefined brute. In December 1950, McCarthy assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the upscale Sulgrave Club in Washington.

Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

A few days later, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” and as a “prostitute of journalism.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Pearson came more than three years before Murrow’s television report about the senator.

On the CBS program yesterday, Brinkley offered other sweeping characterizations about Murrow’s report, saying it had “a devastating effect on Joe McCarthy” and that the senator “started crumbling” soon afterward.

“McCarthy ended up just drinking more and more, and dying not that long after the program aired,” Brinkley said.

In fact, McCarthy died more than three years later, in May 1957. By then, McCarthy’s conduct had been formally rebuked by his Senate colleagues and he had fallen decidedly out of the political limelight.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

On media myths and hallowed moments of exaggerated importance

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Quotes, Television on February 23, 2014 at 7:52 am

We’ll likely see a modest surge in the appearance of media myths in the next couple of weeks, with the approach of hallowed moments of exaggerated importance in media history.

Murrow_thumbnail

Murrow

The 60th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s program about the excesses of Senator Joseph M. McCarthy — sometimes called the finest half-hour in television history — falls in two weeks.

The media myth has it that Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, was so powerful that it abruptly ended McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, a campaign long on innuendo that the senator had launched four years before.

In fact, Murrow was very late to take on McCarthy, and did so only after several other journalists had called attention to the senator’s excesses.  Notable among them was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based syndicated columnist who began questioning the substance of McCarthy’s red-baiting accusations almost as soon as the senator began raising them.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, Murrow, in the days and weeks after his program about McCarthy, acknowledged that he had reinforced what others had long said about the senator.

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

But in the runup to the anniversary of program about McCarthy, we’re likely to hear far more about how Murrow was a courageous white knight, rather than a belated chronicler of McCarthy’s egregious ways.

This week brings the anniversary of the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” another mythical moment in television history that long ago assumed greater importance than it ever deserved.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The “Cronkite Moment” occurred February 27, 1968, when Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, declared at the close of special report about the war in Vietnam that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the quagmire.

Cronkite’s observations supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing Cronkite’s pronouncement, the media myth has it, the president snapped off the television set and muttered to an aide, or aides:

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

Or something to that effect.

And a month later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

The “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible tale which — like the Murrow-McCarthy media myth — is cited as compelling evidence of the power of television news and/or the remarkable sway of influential journalists.

Politico Magazine embraced the “influential journalist” interpretation the other day in recalling the putative “Cronkite Moment” in a lengthy, rambling essay.

The essay declared that Cronkite “had social weight. It seemed as if he spoke for the entire nation. Ironically, a country riven by war and social tensions had an elite that looked and thought about things pretty much the same way as Walter Cronkite.

“When Cronkite said the war [in Vietnam] was a disaster,” the essay continued, “many of them knew the jig was up. A month or so after Cronkite spoke those words, LBJ withdrew from the 1968 presidential election. As Johnson was said to remark to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.'”

Except there’s little evidence that Johnson or other U.S. policymakers in 1968 were much moved by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observations.

By the time of Cronkite’s special report, “stalemate” was an unremarkable way of describing the war effort in Vietnam. The New York Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, including a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it,  the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

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

The Times analysis was published on the front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Cronkite’s remarks about “stalemate” in Vietnam had little to do with Johnson’s decision, announced a month later, not to run for reelection. Far more decisive was Johnson’s diminished political support within the Democratic party. By mid-March 1968, the president was confronting challenges from Democratic senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.

And Johnson may have decided well before then against seeking another four-year term. He wrote in his 1971 memoir, The Vantage Point, that long before March 1968, he “had told a number of people” of his “intention not to run again.”

In any case, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House at the time, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” observations about Vietnam, Johnson was making light about Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence also is scant that Cronkite’s program had much influence on popular opinion. Indeed, polls had detected shifts in sentiment against the war in Vietnam months before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary. Which means the anchorman was following rather than precipitating shifts in public opinion.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.

Murrow

Murrow

They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on July 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The “critic at large” essay in the latest number of the New Yorker includes references to my myth-busting latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Cronkite: His ‘moment’ wasn’t so special

The essay by Louis Menand is largely a searching review of Cronkite, the recent, so-so biography about legendary CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite.

Menand calls the book “long and hastily written.”

He discusses in detail the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968, when Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the Vietnam War was stalemated supposedly was so powerful that it influenced American war policy and moved American public opinion. The Cronkite biography says as much.

But Menand scoffs at the notion the “Cronkite Moment” was very important at all, writing:

“The trouble with this inspiring little story is that most of it is either invented or disputed.”

He specifically refers to Getting It Wrong in dismissing the supposed effects of Cronkite’s pronouncement about the war — notably, that Cronkite’s assessment prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare something to the effect of, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Menand notes that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report about Vietnam when it aired, pointing out that the president was in Austin, Texas, “attending a birthday celebration for Governor John Connally. … There is no solid evidence that Johnson ever saw the show on tape, either, though the White House did tape it.”

Further drawing on Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter debunking the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” Menand writes that even after Cronkite “stalemate” assessment, “Johnson’s speeches on Vietnam … were as hawkish as ever.

“Not only is there little evidence that the broadcast had an effect on Johnson; there is little evidence that it had an effect on public opinion.” And that’s certainly true.

Menand also notes that the author of the Cronkite biography, Douglas Brinkley, “implies that it was Cronkite’s commentary that emboldened the [Wall Street] Journal to criticize the war, but the Journal editorial appeared four days before the broadcast.”

The Journal’s editorial of February 23, 1968, said “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of a defeat [in Vietnam] beyond America’s power to prevent.”

The editorial was strong stuff. And it undeniably preceded Cronkite’s on-air assessment which, given the times, was tepid and unoriginal. Leading U.S. news organizations such as the New York Times, had taken to calling the war a “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s program.

As Menand observes: “In 1968, you did not need an anchorman to know which way the wind blew” on Vietnam.

Menand’s essay also challenges the notion that Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” dissecting a 1972 survey that rated the anchorman more trustworthy than the leading national politicians of the time. Not much of a comparison, that. As media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2009, shortly after Cronkite’s death, the anchorman’s score in the survey “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Menand touches on Edward R. Murrow’s famous program in 1954 that addressed the smears and bullying tactics of the red-baiting U.S. senator, Joseph R. McCarthy. Menand notes that Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow’s televised assessment of McCarthy came “very late in the day.” By 1954, Menand writes, “McCarthy had been hunting witches for four years….”

He also offers a thoughtful and telling assessment about why media myths take hold.

“Journalism and history,” Menand writes, “are about getting things right. But the past has many uses, and one of them is to inspire the present. … More honorably, if not necessarily more accurately, we imagine our predecessors as nobler and braver than our small selves — as men and women who stuck up for principle and, by their righteousness, moved the world.”

That’s well said, and offers revealing insight about the tenacity of such myths as the “Cronkite Moment.”

WJC

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Further reason to pan Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom': It embraces media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on June 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

Aaron Sorkin’s preachy new HBO series, The Newsroom, has, deservedly, received some harsh reviews.

Among the most delicious of those critiques was the New Yorker’s observation that The Newsroom is “so naïve it’s cynical.” And the New York Times said that “at its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony.”

Naïve and sanctimonious: Two solid reasons to avoid The Newsroom, which presumes to offer a behind-the-scenes dramatization of a high-pressure cable news program.

Another reason to pan the show is its embrace of hoary media myths.

The embrace of myth came late in the first episode on Sunday, when Sam Waterston, who plays cable news chief Charlie Skinner, offers advice to Will McAvoy, the prickly and thoroughly unlikable anchorman played by Jeff Daniels.

“Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon,” Waterston/Skinner tells Daniels/McAvoy. “Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam.”

The references were to Edward R. Murrow, whose 30-minute program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter Cronkite’s 30-minute report about Vietnam in 1968 which is often but erroneously described as a turning point in America’s war in Southeast Asia.

Both tales are media-driven myths — compelling and prominent stories about the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as improbable or wildly exaggerated.

The Murrow and the Cronkite anecdotes are both addressed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in the book how Murrow was very late in confronting the McCarthy menace, doing so only months and years after other journalists had repeatedly directed attention to the senator’s bullying tactics and his ready use of the smear.

Among those journalists was Drew Pearson, an aggressive, Washington-based syndicated columnist who became a persistent and searching critic of McCarthy days after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in February 1950.

That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s scathing columns so angered McCarthy that the senator assaulted Pearson following a dinner party at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington in December 1950.

“Accounts differ about what happened,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

That encounter certainly would be fodder for cable TV.

In any event, by March 1954, when Murrow turned his attention to McCarthy, the senator’s character and tactics were quite well-known.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were 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.”

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, Americans knew.

Cronkite’s report about Vietnam aired on February 27, 1968, and closed with the CBS News anchorman asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be the way out of the morass.

Those observations were supposedly so powerful and insightful that they have come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

In fact, though, Cronkite’s observations were scarcely novel or revealing. By the time his report aired, “stalemate” had been used by U.S. news organizations for months to characterize the war in Vietnam.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had grown dubious about the war long before the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

Cronkite’s commentary did little to turn Americans, or the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, against the war.

Cronkite often said as much, likening the program’s effect on policymakers to that of a straw. (Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the purported potency of his 1968 commentary.)

So why bother about — and why blog about — the embrace of media myth on Sorkin’s tiresome, eyeroll-inducing show?

A couple of reasons present themselves.

The blithe, casual reference on The Newsroom to Murrow and Cronkite helps insinuate the media myths in popular consciousness.  It reinforces their tenacity.

Embracing the myths serves also to promote the “golden age” fallacy, the appealing but exaggerated belief that there really was a time when American broadcast news produced giants — hallowed figures of the likes of Murrow and Cronkite who, in the contemporary media landscape, are nowhere to be found.

It is an enticing notion. But it’s flawed and misleading — and vastly overstates the contributions, and opinions, of Murrow and Cronkite.

WJC

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Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2012 at 5:11 am

The 40th anniversary of the debut of the Watergate scandal falls in two months and we’re certain read many effusive tributes to the Washington Post’s reporters who often —  but wrongly — are said to have exposed the scandal and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

It’s a safe bet that many of the tributes to the Post and its Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will be exaggerated and erroneous.

Take, for example, this passage, which appeared over the weekend in a column in the Toronto Sun:

“The only superstars newspapers ever produced were Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post investigative team who broke the Watergate story that led to the downfall of U.S. president Richard Nixon.”

Maybe they were the only superstars of newspaperdom, although that claim might provoke an argument from the committee at New York University that recently selected 100 outstanding U.S. journalists of the past 100 years. (The list included several dubious entries, such as the self-important Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. Murrow.)

Woodward and Bernstein made NYU’s rather predictable list, too.

If they are newspapering’s lone superstars, their self-promotion had a lot to do with it.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, came out in June 1974, about two months before Nixon’s resignation.

The book, a months-long best-seller, had been written with the movies in mind; the cinematic version of All the President’s Men came out in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

But more important than Woodward and Bernstein’s superstar status is the claim in the Sun’s column that they “broke the Watergate story.”

They did no such thing.

The signal crime of Watergate — the June 1972 burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — wasn’t broken by the Post. The break-in was interrupted by police and within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex.

The story in the Post about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and its opening paragraph made quite clear that details were from investigators:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

Watergate reporting by the Post did not expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter about the media myths of Watergate, Woodward was quoted in 1973 as saying that those crucial aspects of the scandal were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward: 'held too close'

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

The tapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured him approving a plan in June 1972 intended to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.

That contents of that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and directly led to his resignation in August 1974.

The White House taping system had been disclosed 11 months before, not by Woodward and Bernstein but by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein later claimed to have had a solid lead about the taping system.

In All the President’s Men, the book, Woodward recalled having spoken with Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the lead.

Bradlee advised:

“I wouldn’t bust one” in checking it out.

Had they followed the lead, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about Watergate.

But they didn’t.

WJC

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Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 5, 2012 at 9:25 am

Celebrities and movie stars rarely make thoughtful, searching media critics, as Barbra Streisand demonstrated in a tedious and predictable essay the other day at Huffington Post.

The actress indulged a bit in the golden age fallacy, recalling broadcast journalists Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as exemplary newsmen whose talents these days are sorely missed.

“Americans,” Streisand wrote, “are busy, working hard to support and provide for their families. They don’t have time to parcel out fact from fiction. They depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them and to hold individuals running for office, especially the highest office in our country, accountable.”

The claim that Americans “depend on the Fourth Estate to guide them” is surely overstated, given evidence that many Americans go newsless and ignore media content altogether.

Streisand went on, extolling media icons of the past:

Murrow

“Journalists like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow knew it was their duty to know the facts and disseminate them to the public. That responsibility in today’s media world seems to be diminishing.”

Murrow, who came to fame on CBS radio in the 1940s and on CBS television in 1950s, was no white knight, though. He hardly was above the political fray.

As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow privately donated time and expertise in acquainting Adlai Stevenson, the 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, with television.

I cite A.M. Sperber, one of Murrow’s leading biographers, who wrote that Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats” in offering Stevenson tips on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber, who characterized Murrow’s move “a radical departure from his usual practice,” said Stevenson “barely endured” the tutoring.

What’s more, Murrow is the subject of one of American journalism’s more savory and tenacious myths — that he stood up to the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, when no other journalist would, or dared.

Which is nonsense.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow was quite late in confronting McCarthy, doing so long after a number of journalists – including the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson– had become persistent and searching critics of the senator, his record, and his tactics.

Cronkite, the famous CBS News anchorman from 1963 to 1981, likewise is the subject of a durable media-driven myth — that his editorializing about the war in Vietnam in February 1968 forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to realize the folly of his policy.

Legend has it that Johnson was watching at the White House when Cronkite pronounced the U.S. military “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. Cronkite also suggested the negotiations might offer a way out of the morass.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, Johnson supposedly leaned over and snapped off the television set, telling an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect. Versions vary, markedly.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program in which Cronkite made his editorial comment.

Johnson in Austin: Didn't see Cronkite show

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally. About the time Cronkite was intoning “mired in stalemate,” Johnson was joking about Connally’s age, saying:

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

It’s illogical to argue that Johnson could have been much moved by a television report he hadn’t seen.

Granted, Cronkite’s editorial comment about Vietnam — tepid though it was — represented something of a departure for the avuncular anchorman. He usually tried to play it straight, because he had to.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s impartiality was partly a function of the federal “Fairness Doctrine,” which sought to encourage balanced reporting on the air.

Shafer wrote that “between 1949 and 1987 — which come pretty close to bookending Cronkite’s TV career — news broadcasters were governed by the federal ‘Fairness Doctrine.’ The doctrine required broadcast station licensees to address controversial issues of public importance but also to allow contrasting points of view to be included in the discussion.

“One way around the Fairness Doctrine was to tamp down controversy,” which he notes, the three U.S. television networks of the time “often did.”

So, no: Murrow and Cronkite weren’t exactly paragons of play-it-straight journalism. Pining for them while deploring today’s freewheeling media landscape is neither very sophisticated nor very useful.

Nor even fair to the historical record.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2011

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 31, 2011 at 4:45 am

Reviewing the year in media-mythbusting reveals a number of memorable posts. Here are the Media Myth Alert five top writeups of 2011, with a roster of other mythbusting posts of note:

Krakauer retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11): This post revealed author Jon Krakauer’s quiet retreat from claims in a 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her supposed battlefield heroics in the Iraq War in 2003.

The claims in Krakauer’s book were unattributed — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory. It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve noted that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the Lynch story has allowed for the emergence not only of false allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a false narrative that the military concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative  also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit.

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18): A handsome historical marker went up in August outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Bob Woodward of the Post conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his stealthy Watergate source, “Deep Throat.”

The marker, I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which just isn’t so.

Such evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did, in August 1974.

Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) didn’t share it with Woodward.

I noted in my post about the marker that All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting, says Woodward’s conversations with “Deep Throat” were intended “only to confirm information that had been gathered elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19): I ascertained in this post that an image of a bra-burning protest in Toronto in 1979 was no hoax, that the photograph was authentic.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper.

I had doubts about the photo’s authenticity — given the periodic claims that no bras ever were burned at a feminist protest. The Toronto image, I suspected, might have been unethically altered.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said it “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-savvy and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University contained a quotation attributed to Murrow that’s only half-true.

Murrow

The quote reads:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

As I’ve reported previously, the first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow, in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

The second part of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In February, I found that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s provenance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the ‘loyal opposition’ quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon (posted March 12): Joe Biden, the hapless U.S. vice president, repeated the dominant but misleading narrative about the Watergate scandal in March by telling an audience in Moscow that the Washington Post had “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The gaffe-prone Biden told his audience:

“In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

It’s a version of scandal that few serious historians accept. Not even the Washington Post buys into such a myth-encrusted interpretation.

Indeed, principals at the Post from time to time have sought to distance the newspaper from that misleading assessment.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, said in 1997, at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the scandal:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

More recently, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Such comments are not the expressions of false modesty. Instead, they represent a more accurate reading of the history of Watergate than Biden offered up in Moscow.

Even so, in the run-up to the scandal’s 40th anniversary in 2012, the Watergate myth — the heroic-journalist trope — is sure to emerge often and insistently.

But the Post and its reporting of Watergate assuredly did not bring down Nixon, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my latest book which was published in 2010.

WJC

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

Other memorable posts of 2011:

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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