W. Joseph Campbell

‘Chappaquiddick,’ the movie: Muddled character study

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Reviews, Scandal, Watergate myth on April 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

Chappaquiddick, the docudrama revisiting Senator Ted Kennedy’s misconduct following a late-night automobile accident in July 1969 that killed his 28-year-old female passenger, was released over the weekend to larger-than-expected audiences and not-bad reviews.

The film’s release also was accompanied by a bit of carping from a Kennedy apologist who characterized Chappaquiddick as a distortion, as bad history.

Such complaints are fair enough, when accurate. Plenty of American history has been distorted by the cinema.

The movie version of All the President’s Men, for example, fueled the media myth that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s The Post mythologized the presumed courage of the publisher of the newspaper — the Washington Postthat trailed the New York Times in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the government’s classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for its reporting on the case.

The carping about Chappaquiddick came in a prickly commentary in the Times that claimed the movie “distorts a tragedy” in revisiting Kennedy’s actions leading to the watery death of Mary Jo Kopechne — one of the late Robert Kennedy’s female campaign staffers, six of whom Ted Kennedy and friends invited to party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July 1969.

Kennedy, who was married, and Kopechne, who was not, left the party together, with the senator behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan.

According to Kennedy’s accounts, he made a wrong turn, drove the sedan down an unpaved road and off a wooden bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick. The car flipped before landing in the water. Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) escaped the sunken Oldsmobile and made it back to his hotel room in Edgartown, across a ferry channel from Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) died alone inside the car.

The incident — and the success of Kennedy and his minions in thwarting thorough investigations of his conduct — are at the dramatic heart of Chappaquiddick.

If anything, though, the movie shows too little of the fecklessness of local authorities whose deference allowed Kennedy to escape with a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of a deadly accident. Power enabled by privilege was Chappaquiddick’s amoral takeaway.

Chappaquiddick would have been a powerful film had it presented a withering, focused look at the privilege and power that got the senator off the hook and safely away from criminal jeopardy.

The Times commentary chafed at the movie’s treatment of Kennedy, whom Massachusetts voters returned to the U.S. Senate seven times after the Chappaquiddick scandal.

“Contrary to the film’s implications,” says the commentary, written by Neil Gabler, “Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption,” adds Gabler, who is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy.  Chappaquiddick, he writes, “is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”

How hagiographic. How beside the point.

Chappaquiddick could have been a withering and unsparing examination of a scion of privilege, a national figure who had a long history of drinking to excess and of treating women badly, and who by his own admission acted reprehensibly in the hours after driving the Oldsmobile off the bridge.

As it is, the film is a somewhat muddled character study, in part because of gaps in the narrative — gaps that persist because the senator was never compelled to explain fully what happened on that summer’s night 49 years ago.

Despite it shortcomings and occasional indulgence in dramatic license, the movie presents the incontrovertible main elements of the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, namely that:

  • Kennedy left the party with a young woman not his wife. Kennedy later said he was driving her to the ferry that would take her to Edgartown and her hotel. But Kopechne left behind at the party her purse and motel room key.
  • Kennedy did not immediately call for help from police or rescue workers after escaping the Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond.
  • Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours — until Kopechne’s lifeless body had been found in the submerged sedan.
  • Kennedy’s loyalists sought to pitch the episode as another tragedy for Kennedy’s family.
  • Kennedy was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, not the far more serious charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
  • Kennedy’s ambitions to become president were derailed by Kopechne’s death; he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

As Leo DaMore wrote in Senatorial Privilege, an incisive and detailed study of Chappaquiddick, “In his pursuit of the presidential nomination, Kennedy had run against Chappaquiddick. And Chappaquiddick had won.”

So why is a movie about the Chappaquiddick scandal worth making nowadays? Principally because Chappaquiddick, and Kennedy’s misconduct, have receded in popular consciousness. Kennedy, who late in his life was celebrated fulsomely as a “lion of the Senate,” lived until 2009, 40 years after Kopechne’s death.

A more honorable man than he would have resigned in July 1969 and left public life.

WJC

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15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” he said.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

He also said:

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

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

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

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

“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.”

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.

WJC

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The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment,” an occasion fitting to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is a hoary and tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

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

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun shifting against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in the now-defunct Media Studies Journal in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.

WJC

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