W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling 1968, year of media myths

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on February 5, 2018 at 8:44 am

Much has been written already this year about 1968, a tumultuous and divisive time of war, civil protest, political upheaval, and bloodshed. It was, we’re told, a year that changed America, or even changed America forever.

braburning_atlcty_1968.jpg

Protest: At ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ September 1968

It’s also true, if less hyperbolic, that 1968 can be considered a foundation year for media myths, signaling anew how understanding of the past can be warped by dubious tales and exaggerated interpretations.

Three prominent and tenacious media myths stem from 1968 — the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” which is said to have dramatically altered views about the Vietnam War; the “secret plan” for ending that war, a plan on which Richard Nixon supposedly campaigned for the presidency; and the nuanced myth of bra-burning at the Miss America pageant in September 1968.

Not surprisingly, credulous references to those myths have appeared in recent news accounts and commentaries about the 50th anniversary of 1968.

Notable among the references have been those about the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite offered a pessimistic assessment of the war in Vietnam, asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in its fight against communist forces there. He also suggested that negotiations might prove to be a way out for the United States.

Cronkite’s downbeat characterization was offered at the close of a special report based on the anchorman’s visit to Vietnam during the communists’ Tet offensive, which had begun at the end of January 1968.

“Stalemate,” though, was scarcely an original analysis: It had been invoked for months to characterize the war in Vietnam, as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

What supposedly made it all so exceptional was that Cronkite had turned pessimistic about the war. After all, Cronkite was, as CBS recently recalled, “America’s most trusted newsman” whose assessments supposedly projected unrivaled influence.

Often cited as evidence of such influence is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s purported reaction to Cronkite’s “stalemate” remarks.

As a recent NPR report claimed, “Johnson is said to have told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'” (The San Francisco Chronicle asserted no such qualification last month in stating, “Johnson remarked to an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”)

The president’s presumptive comment has become the stuff of legend, even if versions of what Johnson supposedly said vary markedly.

Mentioned far less often is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired, and that there is no clear evidence about whether, or when, he watched the program later, on videotape.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

And mentioned even less often is that the Cronkite report appears to have influenced the president’s public stance on the war not at all.

Indeed, in the days and weeks after the “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson doubled down on his Vietnam policy, urging a renewed commitment to defeating communism in Vietnam.

The president was overtly and vigorously hawkish on the war at a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent. But the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s pessimism and repeatedly sought to rally popular support for the war effort.

Not only that: the claim that Cronkite was the “most trusted” newsman didn’t prominently emerge until 1972; the term was invoked in newspaper advertising bought by CBS, to tout its coverage of Election Night that year.

Nixon’s “secret plan” for Vietnam is another hoary myth that dates to early 1968 and likewise has proven resistant to debunking. William Safire, a former speechwriter for Nixon and later a New York Times columnist, once wrote of the “secret plan” myth:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the [Nixon] non-quotation never seems to go away ….”

Huffington Post invoked the non-quotation in a recent look back at 1968, asserting that “the ultimate winner of the year proved to be a man who campaigned on the thesis that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

No, Nixon did not campaign in 1968 “on the thesis that he had a secret plan,” even though the anecdote does fit the popular image of Nixon as cunning and duplicitous.

As Media Myth Alert has often noted, Nixon never made a “secret plan” a plank of his campaign in 1968. It was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

His opponents occasionally accused him of having a secret plan for Vietnam, but Nixon pointedly and publicly disavowed the notion.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made shortly before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

That a “secret plan” was not a feature of Nixon’s 1968 campaign becomes clear in reviewing a database of the content of leading U.S. newspapers, including for 1968, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

If Nixon had claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, America’s leading newspapers surely would have reported it.

A column that promoted a media-driven trope

And then there’s the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning, which can be traced to September 7, 1968, and a women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk at Atlantic City, N.J., against the Miss America pageant.

The demonstration’s organizers have insisted that while bras, girdles, high heels, and other items were ceremoniously tossed into a burn barrel dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can,” nothing was set afire. Or as a recent 1968 retrospective in the Orange County Register put it, “the protest occurred flame free.”

But such a statement ignores the accounts of two reporters who were at the protest that day.

One of them, John L. Boucher, wrote the next day in the Press of Atlantic City that as “the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Boucher’s matter-of-fact reference to burning bras appeared in the ninth paragraph of his article, which the Press published beneath the headline:

Bra-burners blitz boardwalk.

Boucher’s observation was supported by another reporter at the boardwalk that day, Jon Katz, who in interviews by email and phone, said without hesitation that bras and other items indeed had been set afire during the demonstration.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire,” Katz said. “I am quite certain of this.”

He also said:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, the accounts of Boucher and Katz lend no support for the vivid popular imagery that many bras went set afire in a flamboyant protest on the boardwalk. At most, fire was a modest, fleeting element of the demonstration.

But their accounts make clear that “bra-burning” is an epithet not misapplied to the 1968  protest at Atlantic City.

WJC

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‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: A hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, but the emphasis is misplaced.

To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect. The underlying history is dubious, which means The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a clumsy distraction, and it inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper for nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says, yes, go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary these days, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.

WJC

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NYT turns obscure statement into prominent blurb to tout its Pentagon Papers reporting

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm

“The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The New York Times has turned recently to that expansive claim, most conspicuously in a full-page advertisement, to suggest the rival Washington Post once praised the Times for disclosing the Pentagon Papers.

The quotation has been interpreted as the Times’ giving the Washington Post a thumb in the eye amid the much-ballyhooed limited release of Steven Spielberg‘s cinematic hagiography, The Post.

The movie dramatizes the Washington Post’s secondary role in reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — a focus surely irritating to the Times. (The Times’ review of the film observed that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”)

The quotation attributed to the Washington Post and seeming to commend the Times appears as a front-cover blurb for a new book that brings together the Times’ award-winning articles about the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s once-secret history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The quotation was displayed prominently in a full-page advertisement the Times published the other day (see image nearby) to call attention to the book. The quotation also appears at a Web page promoting the book at the Times’ online store.

But when did the Washington Post make that statement?

Not in the aftermath of the Times’ disclosures of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, as the blurb may suggest: A search of the full-text ProQuest database containing Washington Post content from 1877 through 1997 turned up no such statement.

Front cover blurb

A similar — but somewhat less assertive — statement appeared in the Washington Post in June 2011, in an 850-word article about the government’s declassification of the Pentagon Papers. That article was retrieved from the Nexis database and from a search on Google. Its opening sentence reads:

“The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

As “one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The Washington Post’s report also noted that declassification came “40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times.” But the article did not commend the Times for the revelations — an interpretation that’s certainly suggested by the blurb in the ad and on the book cover.

I asked the Times’ communications staff about the derivation of the quotation and was directed to this site, a rudimentary searchable archive the Washington Post set up, probably in 2011, to permit readers to review the declassified Pentagon Papers. An introductory statement posted at the site said:

“Four decades after the most significant leaks of classified material in American history, the Pentagon Papers have remained classified — until now. Read the full archive of the declassified documents as released by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

So that’s the source of the statement that the Times has invoked as a money quote to tout and recall its enterprise on the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post said it, but clearly in a trivial and off-hand way. It was no prominent pronouncement. Or even a passage in a news article or commentary.

It was made obscurely, and it said nothing about the Times’ enterprise.

The Times’ turning the obscure statement into a prominent blurb underscores that its rivalry with the Washington Post remains keen. Of late, the Times has seemed eager to direct attention to its disclosures about the Pentagon Papers, in light of the favorable reviews of Spielberg’s movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post was undeniably beaten on the Pentagon Papers story in 1971; it started printing excerpts of its own after the federal government enjoined the Times from publishing reports it had prepared drawn from the secret history. Soon after its excerpts began appearing, the Post was similarly restrained by a federal appeals court.

Both newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court which, at the end of June 1971, invalidated the government’s restraint in a 6-to-3 decision and the injunctions were lifted.

The Times’ reporting on the Pentagon Papers won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Post won no Pulitzers that year.

Writing at the “Deadline Hollywood” entertainment news site the other day, Jeremy Gerard discussed the Times’ recent full-page book ad, calling it “a puckish thumb-in-the-eye to the competition” and noting that the “promo is topped with a money quote – ‘The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’ – from, that’s right, the Washington Post.”

WJC

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