W. Joseph Campbell

Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2015 at 6:30 pm

With a bit of routine fact-checking, news organizations usually can sidestep the embarrassment of trading in prominent media myths.

But, no: The narrative power of many media myths often makes them too good to check. And so the myth gets retold.

Consider the latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsmagazine. In an extended report about family-run companies, the Economist offers up the simplistic and ever-appealing myth that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought low in the 1970s by the Washington Post, then owned by Katharine Graham and family.

Economist cover“Under her iron reign,” the Economist says of Graham, “the Washington Post brought down President Nixon with its investigation into the Watergate break-in and challenged the New York Times for the title of America’s most illustrious newspaper.”

The last claim, about challenging the New York Times, might have been true, for a while. But no more. And there’s no way the Post brought down” Nixon.

Katharine Graham herself said as much, at the 25th anniversary of the break-in in June 1972 of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the scandal’s seminal crime.

Speaking at an event in suburban Virginia, at the original Newseum (humble predecessor to the $450 million edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue), Graham insisted that the Post had not toppled Nixon.

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

Graham’s comment is not difficult to track down. It’s in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, and I have incorporated the quote in many blog posts at Media Myth Alert, including those here, here, here, and here.

Graham was quite right about the processes that forced Nixon’s resignation (he quit in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives).

And over the years, Graham’s views have been echoed by other principals at the newspaper.

Ben Bradlee, the executive editor during and after the Watergate period, likewise rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down the president, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the many hours of White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the DNC headquarters.)

Howard Kurtz, formerly the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office ….”

And Bob Woodward, one of the newspaper’s lead reporters on Watergate, once told American Journalism Review:

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

It is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It notably did not disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It likewise failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes. Indeed, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important, I wrote, were “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.”

And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the tapes — the existence of which was revealed by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Its latest issue is not the first in which the Economist has indulged in Watergate mythology. In October, shortly after his death, the newsmagazine published a tribute to Bradlee, beneath a headline that read:

“The editor who toppled Nixon.”

That mythical claim appeared in the text of the eulogy as well.

WJC

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NYTimes review offers up myth about radio listeners and the 1960 debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Television on March 16, 2015 at 9:08 am
Kennedy and Nixon_1960

Kennedy, Nixon at the debate

Because he looked poised and confident, it is often said that television viewers felt Senator John F. Kennedy won the first-ever U.S. presidential debate in 1960.

Radio listeners, perhaps put off by Kennedy’s New England accent, thought his Republican foe, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, performed better.

The notion there was marked disagreement among viewers and listeners is dubious but hardy — and it popped up yesterday in the New York Times, in a review of an art exhibition at Hofstra University Museum.

The exhibition includes, the review said, a “video clip from the televised presidential debate between Vice President Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960,” a clip that “seems to show the handsome, youthful Kennedy trouncing a visibly sweating Nixon. (Those who caught the debate on the radio thought Nixon trumped Kennedy.)”

Well, not really: There’s no solid, persuasive evidence to support the notion that radio listeners felt that Nixon had “trumped” Kennedy, or that listeners sharply disagreed with television viewers about who did better in the debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.

That there must have been such an effect is appealing on many levels, notably because it suggests that appearance can trump substance in politics.

But the notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate is a media myth — a media myth that endures despite being thoroughly dismantled nearly 30 years ago in research published by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

In an article in Central States Speech Journal  in 1987, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 11.35.11 PM

They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.

The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.

Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents. Of that number, only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, which was far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.

Vancil and Pendell’s article also questioned the notion that Nixon’s haggard and sweaty appearance during the debate was necessarily decisive to views about who won the encounter.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” they wrote, “but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”

They added: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.”

It is important to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary declared the Kennedy-Nixon encounter — the first of four debates during the 1960 campaign — to have been a draw, or nearly so.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote:

“Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”

Writing in the old New York Herald Tribune, columnist John Crosby stated:

“I think Kennedy outpointed Nixon. I think it was a close fight and perhaps a disappointing one. … Both candidates were awfully cautious, as if they’d been warned that a mistake could cost them the whole prize.”

The Washington Post saw it another way, stating in a post-debate editorial:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Right after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press news service conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported finding that most respondents said they weren’t influenced by the exchanges.

“Only a few persons,” the AP reported, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”

A Gallup poll taken in the week after the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate; 23 percent thought Nixon was better, and 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

The survey, moreover, detected no marked, post-debate shift of support to Kennedy. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

“The prudent reader can see,” wrote George Gallup, the head of the polling organization, in reporting those results, that polling “has not reached the degree of accuracy required to say with certainty which candidate is ahead in a close race such as the present one.”

Kennedy narrowly won the election, receiving 49.72 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55 percent.

WJC

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Cronkite, public opinion, and Vietnam: LATimes overstates the link

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs, Television on February 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Today is the anniversary of the mythicalCronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s assessment about the war in Vietnam supposedly had powerful effects on viewers and non-viewers alike.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Cronkite’s report of February 27, 1968, “shifted public opinion on the war.”

But it didn’t. Not demonstrably, not measurably.

The “shifted public opinion” claim is embedded in the Times’ profile of Scott Pelley, a successor to Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

The profile, posted online yesterday, mentions photographs on Pelley’s office walls, images that include “Walter Cronkite in Vietnam for his documentary that shifted public opinion on the war.”

What CBS aired 47 years ago tonight was a special, hour-long news report about the Tet offensive launched at the end of January 1968. The communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies struck then across South Vietnam and the extent of their attacks surprised the American public, which had been told the U.S. military was making significant progress in the war.

The offensive prompted Cronkite to travel to Vietnam to gather material for his special report, which he closed by declaring the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” — a tepid characterization that hardly was very original.

Cronkite also suggested in his wrap-up assessment that negotiations might eventually prove to be a way out of the war. Nor was that a particularly bold suggestion.

In time, though, Cronkite’s report came to be thought of as legendary, as exceptional, as the “Cronkite Moment.” It has become barnacled with media myth.

It is often said the President Lyndon Johnson was at the White House that night (he was in Texas), that he watched Cronkite’s report (he did not), and that Cronkite’s assessment prompted him to say something to the effect of “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (there’s no evidence he said anything of the sort, and it’s hard to believe the president was much moved by a report he did not see).

As for the notion that Cronkite’s analysis altered American public opinion about the war, supporting evidence is extremely thin.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. That shift was evident by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening in support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

So Cronkite’s report had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

WJC

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