W. Joseph Campbell

New year, old myths

In Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on January 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

The first weeks of the new year have brought the reappearance of a number of hoary media myths, those false but irresistible tall tales that circulate widely in the news media even though they’ve been thoroughly debunked.

These myths include the narrative about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — whose dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post supposedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

Not the Post's doing

Not the Post‘s doing

David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, invoked that well-known trope the other day.

Writing at a Sun-affiliated blog, Zurawik referred to “legacy investigative journalism that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post used to bring down Richard Nixon.”

This was not the first time Zurawik has invoked the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: In early November, he called Bernstein “[o]ne of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down.”

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago — not even the Post’s Watergate-era principals bought into the notion that Woodward and/or Bernstein brought down Nixon.

The newspaper’s then-publisher, Katharine Graham, and its executive editor, Ben Bradlee, dismissed assertions that the Post’s reporting had toppled Nixon. Graham, for example, said pointedly in a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“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.”

And Woodward, himself, has scoffed at the heroic-journalist myth, telling an interviewer for American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

Other prominent media myths circulate around Nixon — notably that of his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War.

Supposedly, Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 touting such a plan. An NPR commentary served up an extravagant and unsourced version of Nixon’s “secret plan,” flatly declaring 10 days ago:

“Richard Nixon won in 1968 while uniting his party around his ‘secret plan’ to end the war in Vietnam.”

The “secret plan” anecdote is perversely appealing in its expression of cunning and duplicity: The anecdote does seem thoroughly Nixonian.

But Nixon neither touted nor campaigned on a “secret plan,” let alone having used it to unite the Republican Party.

The pledge is one he never made.

In fact, candidate Nixon pointedly and publicly disavowed such a notion.

In an article published in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, 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 [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not make such a claim a feature of his campaign that year.

That much is clear in the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times,  New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

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.)

Had Nixon’s campaign featured a “secret plan” for Vietnam, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have publicized it.

The hoary tale of William Randolph Hearst’s warmongering vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the Nineteenth Century — a media myth that, zombie-like, never dies — popped up in Fit for the Presidency? a book published January 1.

Fit for the Presidency? revisits the credentials of 15 one-time presidential candidates, doing so through the lens of an executive recruiter. The cases examined include that of Hearst, a media baron who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1904.

The book invokes the “furnish the war” anecdote this way:

Warmonger?

Hearst: Warmonger?

“The most controversial episode of [Hearst’s] career began when he got a telegram from Frederic Remington, who he had sent to Cuba to cover the revolution against Spain: ‘Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.’ To which Hearst allegedly responded, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’

“Yet, no one has been able to get a copy of either telegram, so there are strong suspicions that they never existed in the first place. Perhaps the story is a plant by [Hearst rival Joseph] Pulitzer, or it may have even been invented by Remington himself.”

The anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal, as I describe in detail in Getting It Wrong. The purported telegrams have indeed never turned up. Hearst, moreover, denied having sent such a message and Remington, a prominent artist of the American West, apparently never discussed the supposed exchange.

And the timing suggested by Fit for the Presidency? is a bit shaky, in that the anecdote was not in wide circulation when Hearst sought the presidential nomination in 1904.

The tale first appeared in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a former reporter for Hearst who had a well-known reputation for injecting hyperbole in his writing. Creelman did not identify where or how he learned of the purported Remington-Hearst exchange.

In any case, the anecdote did not become prominently attached to Hearst until the mid-1930s, when he turned against President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Hearst, a lifelong Democrat, condemned Roosevelt while backing Republican Alf Landon for the presidency in 1936.

Landon carried two states, Maine and Vermont, in a landslide defeat of epic proportion.

Hearst’s apostasy angered Democrats and prompted foes to dig up mostly forgotten tales such as the “furnish the war” vow. Indeed, that anecdote became Exhibit A in a lineup of purported evidence that Hearst’s newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898. The claim became popular and took on a sinister cast not when Hearst sought the presidential nomination in 1904, but in 1936 — and has circulated vigorously thereafter.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2016

In 'Napalm girl', Bay of Pigs, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

Media Myth Alertscreen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm called attention in 2016 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases discussed in a new, expanded edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, which was published in October.

Here is a rundown of Media Myth Alert’s five top posts of the year, followed by references to other notable mythbusting writeups of 2016.

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures (posted August 22): The new edition of Getting It Wrong includes three new chapters — one of which debunks the myths associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which showed a cluster of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village northwest of Saigon.

Most prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. forces — a claim the Los Angeles Times repeated in a profile in August about Nick Ut of the Associated Press, who took the photograph on June 8, 1972. The profile described how “Ut stood on a road in a village just outside of Saigon when he spotted the girl — naked, scorched by American napalm and screaming as she ran.”

Shortly after Media Myth Alert called attention to the erroneous reference to “American napalm,” the Times quietly removed the modifier “American” — but without appending a correction.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years.

The notion of American responsibility for the napalm attack took hold in the months afterward, propelled by George McGovern, the hapless Democratic candidate for president in 1972. McGovern referred to the image during his campaign, saying the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America.”

That metaphoric claim was “plainly overstated,” I write, adding:Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

“The napalm was dropped on civilians ‘not in the name of America’ but in an errant attempt by South Vietnamese forces to roust North Vietnamese troops from bunkers dug at the outskirts of the village. That is quite clear from contemporaneous news reports.”

The Los Angeles Times placed the “napalm girl” photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby); the caption made clear that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

So why does it matter to debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl”?

The reasons are several.

“Excising the myths … allows the image to be regarded and assessed more fairly, on its own terms,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Debunking the myths of ‘Napalm Girl’ does nothing to diminish the photograph’s exceptionality. But removing the barnacles of myth effectively frees the photograph from association with feats and effects that are quite implausible.” That’s a reference to other myths of the “Napalm Girl,” that the image was so powerful that it swung public opinion against the war and hastened an end to the conflict.

But like the notion of American culpability in the errant attack, those claims are distortions and untrue.

NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ Bay of Pigs coverage (posted November 26): Fidel Castro died in late November and the New York Times in a lengthy obituary called the brutal Cuban dictator “a towering international figure.” The Times obituary also invoked a persistent media myth about its own coverage of the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The obituary said that the Times, “at the request of the Kennedy administration, withheld some” details of the invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the administration of President John F. Kennedy “asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.”

What I call the “New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth” centers around the editing of a single article by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times. Eleven days before the invasion, Szulc reported from Miami that an assault, organized by the CIA, was imminent.

Editors at the Times removed references to imminence and to the CIA.

“Imminent,” they reasoned, was more prediction than fact.

And the then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that he “was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.” So references to CIA were replaced with the more nebulous term “U.S. officials.”

Both decisions were certainly justifiable. And Szulc’s story appeared April 7, 1961, above-the-fold on the Times front page (see image nearby).

NYT_BayofPigs_frontAs the veteran Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

What’s rarely recognized or considered in asserting the suppression myth is that the Times’ reporting about the runup to the invasion was hardly confined to Szulc’s article.

Indeed, the Times and other news outlets “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write, noting that the newspaper “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs” on April 17, 1961.

Suppressed the coverage was not.

Smug MSNBC guest invokes Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam (posted May 3): Donald Trump’s shaky grasp of foreign policy invited his foes to hammer away at his views — and one of them, left-wing activist Phyllis Bennis, turned to a tenacious media myth to bash the Republican candidate.

Bennis did so in late April, in an appearance on the MSNBC program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.MSNBC logo

Trump during his campaign vowed to eradicate ISIS, the radical Islamic State, but wasn’t specific about how that would be accomplished.

Bennis, showing unconcealed smugness, declared on the MSNBC show that Trump’s reference to ISIS “was very reminiscent of Nixon’s call when he was running for president [in 1968] and said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’ The secret plan of course turned out to be escalation.”

In fact, the “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

He didn’t campaign for the presidency by espousing or touting or proclaiming a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

That much is clear from the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including 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 all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, if Nixon had campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, as Bennis so snootily claimed, the country’s leading newspapers would have publicized it.

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

Nixon also said on that occasion:

“If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim was not a feature of his campaign.

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’ (posted December 18): The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Confirmation of its zombie-like character was in effect offered by Politico in December, in an essay about the “long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico cited, as if it were true, the fake tale of Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert post about Politico‘s use of the mythical quote:

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of ‘fake news‘ that have masqueraded as fact for years.”

The tale, I write in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, begun in 1895 — was the very reason Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba at the end of 1896.

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter is accessible here.

NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies (posted January 3): Watergate’s mythical dominant narrative has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the crimes that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

The dominant narrative (the heroic-journalist trope, I call it) emerged long ago, and Hollywood — specifically, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — is an important reason why.

The movie, All the President’s Men, was released to critical acclaim 40 years ago and unabashedly promotes the heroic-journalist interpretation, that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling Watergate and bringing down Nixon.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured” — as was suggested by a New York Times in an article in early January.

The article, which appeared beneath the headline “Journalism Catches Hollywood’s Eye,” embraced the heroic-journalist myth in referring to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Their reporting had no such effect, however much All the President’s Men encouraged that simple notion.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s notable that principals at the Post declined over the years to embrace the mediacentric interpretation.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, for example:

“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.”

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote:

“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.”

The January article was not the first occasion in which the Times treated the heroic-journalist myth as if it were true.

In an article in 2008 about Woodward’s finally introducing Bernstein to the high-level Watergate source code-named “Deep Throat,” the Times referred to the “two young Washington Post reporters [who] cracked the Watergate scandal and brought down President Richard M. Nixon.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2016 :

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 18, 2016 at 1:58 pm

In a lengthy essay posted today, Politico considers what it called the “long and brutal history of fake news” — and offers up, as if it were true, the fake tale of William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The essay also invokes other myths associated with the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as fact for years.

Politico logoHere’s how Politico recounted the anecdote:

“In the 1890s, plutocrats like Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst — the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — famously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”

Lots of myth to unpack in that passage.

Let’s start with the unsourced reference to Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago), “the anecdote lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Not only that, but it’s extremely unlikely that Hearst’s purported telegram would have reached Remington without being intercepted by Spanish authorities.

They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their oversight, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

I further point out that an incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

Remington’s assignment in Cuba was to draw sketches of the rebellion which, by then, had reached islandwide proportions. Spain had sent as many as 200,000 troops to Cuba in a futile attempt to put down the conflict. Remington arrived in early January 1897 and stayed six days.

He apparently never spoke publicly about the purported telegraphic exchange with Hearst. Even so, the artist’s work and recollections of the assignment belie the notion that he had found Cuba undisturbed by conflict.

Remington

Remington: Brief trip to Cuba gave rise to media myth

His sketches published in Hearst’s New York Journal depict unmistakable, if unremarkable, scenes of  rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban noncombatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.

Accompanying the sketch of the captive noncombatants was a caption in which Remington said the treatment of Cuban women by irregulars allied with the Spanish was nothing short of “unspeakable.” And “as for the men captured by them alive,” Remington’s caption said, “the blood curdles in my veins as I think of the atrocity, the cruelty, practiced on these helpless victims.”

In 1899, Remington recalled the assignment to Cuba in a short magazine article in which he wrote:

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor. The countryside, Remington wrote, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Clearly, the artist had seen a good deal of war-related misery and disruption during his brief visit to Cuba.

The trip’s immediate aftermath proved controversial and embarrassing to Remington. After returning to New York, he drew an imaginative and highly inaccurate sketch of leering Spanish authorities conducting a strip-search of a young Cuban woman aboard an American passenger vessel before it left Havana.

Remington’s sketch was drawn to accompany a report by Richard Harding Davis, a flashy correspondent who had accompanied the artist to Cuba and stayed on for a few weeks.

Davis’ article — which condemned the search and suggested, erroneously, that it was illegal on an American-flagged vessel in Cuban waters — was published on the Journal’s front page in February 1897. Remington’s accompanying strip-search sketch (see nearby) was displayed on page 2. It erred in showing men conducting the search; it was carried out by a woman.

Presumably, this sketch is what Politico referred to in stating:

“Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-11-15-08-am

The subject of the search was a Cuban woman. And the sketch, while exaggerated, had nothing to do with the onset of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.

Nor did the content of Hearst’s newspapers: They did not foment or give rise to the conflict — a media-centric interpretation that I address and debunk in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Claims that Hearst brought about the war, I wrote, “often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, the scene of rebellion since early 1895.

In trying to put down the rebellion, Spain not only had sent thousands of troops to the island, it imposed a cruel policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s newspapers in New York and San Francisco.

The Hearst press reported on, but did not create, the deplorable effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in April 1898 — a decision that had little to do with Hearst, Remington, or the content of the New York Journal.

WJC

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