W. Joseph Campbell

Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects of Watergate:

“‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.'”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming Woodward and Bernstein’s exposing the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

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After the editorial-solidarity stunt: Why nothing changed in Trump-press war

In Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 23, 2018 at 6:57 am

It’s been a week since the editorial voices of more than 300 U.S. newspapers collectively condemned President Donald Trump’s frequent rhetorical attacks on the press.

The one-off campaign was a preening and self-important stunt, coordinated by the Boston Globe and joined by the likes of the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as many smaller titles. (Titles that boycotted the campaign included the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.)

Not surprising, the solidarity demonstration passed without evident effect. Seven days after, it’s clear the campaign made little difference, as is usually the case with editorials. Trump is still a badgering narcissist, slamming the press for biases, real and perceived.

Not that anyone thought the solidarity stunt — or “spun-up nonsense,” as one boycotting newspaper called it — would make much difference. But it did make the press seem defensive, easily wounded, prone to group think, and eager to take refuge in eye-rolling platitudes. The editorials condemning Trump certainly oozed sanctimony; here’s a sample:

“A war on the press is a war on democracy,” declared the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“A free society can only function correctly if its citizens have timely access to information concerning its government’s dealings, and if representatives are held to acceptable standards,” intoned the Courier of Waterloo, Iowa.

“An independent and free media — and local news in particular — is our protection from tyranny and our guard against the oppression of those who would take advantage of us,” said the Duluth News Tribune.

“… a free press is fundamental to the continuation of our American experiment in democracy,” asserted the Dallas Morning News.

“A free press builds the foundation for democracy,” said the Tampa Bay Times. (More likely the reverse is true: Press freedom and media pluralism are effects, not conditions, of democratic governance.)

In any case, none of that chest-thumping had much chance of swaying popular opinions about the news media. Suspicions about the news media run deep, as a recent Gallup poll suggests: 62 percent of respondents said they believe bias lurks in news in print and on radio, and television.

The news media would do better to be more candid about their imperfections, limitations, and biases; to undertake more vigorously to get it right; to correct errors promptly and without chafing, to be less lop-sided, and less condescending, in their coverage.

Errors in reporting about Trump and his administration have been many, and have nearly all flown in the same direction, to the discredit of the president.

For nine years, Media Myth Alert has called attention to the publication and appearance of media myths — those well-known tales of great deeds that journalists love to tell about themselves. Media myths, when exposed to scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. But as the content of Media Myth Alert make clears, these myths are still entrenched and still circulate in the news media.

Journalists ought to take themselves a bit less seriously: the performance journalism of CNN’s Jim Acosta, who has come off as the bully in questioning Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, has been an embarrassment.

American journalists also would do well to understand more fully the history of media and of the abuses reporters and editors have confronted from time to time. Trump may be a bully, prone to raging hyperbole. But his administration is not jailing journalists. Or even following through on a campaign vow to loosen libel laws and facilitate litigation against the media.

Trump is no “unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists,” as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists declared in 2016.

His outbursts condemning the “fake news” media are hardly akin to the enforcement of the Sedition Act, which was passed 220 years ago and forbade “publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States.”

Several American journalists were accused and jailed during the administration of John Adams for violating the Sedition Act. Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, Benjamin Franklin Bache, whose Philadelphia Aurora was a vigorous critic of the administrations of Adams and his predecessor, George Washington, ran afoul of the law.

Bache was arrested in June 1798 and died of yellow fever two months later, before he could be tried.

Trump’s bluster is less consequential and less punitive to the news media than the surveillance tactics of Barack Obama’s administration, which turned to the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I era, to pursue leakers and threaten journalists.

As Julie Mason, a former White House correspondent, noted in an essay in Variety in April:

“Obama, who campaigned on a promise to protect government whistle-blowers, made greater use of the Espionage Act … than all other presidents combined.

“Obama’s Justice Department accessed the personal email of a Fox News reporter and surveilled the reporter’s parents and colleagues. They seized the home, work and mobile phone records of journalists at the Associated Press.”

The Obama administration also pressed James Risen of the New York Times to reveal confidential sources in a criminal leak investigation.

Risen wrote in the Times as Obama’s presidency neared its end:

“If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”

Not surprisingly, the anti-Trump editorial-solidarity campaign made scant mention of Obama’s heavy-handed anti-press measures.

Critics of the solidarity stunt were right: The editorial outbursts last week lent Trump fresh ammunition to assail the news media as overtly aligned against him.

WJC

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The insidious media myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on July 29, 2018 at 11:31 am

The most powerful media myths are insidious, worming their way deep into popular consciousness where they gain resistance to debunking.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

That’s certainly the case with the award-winning “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken by an Associated Press photographer in June 1972, during the Vietnam War.

The black-and-white image shows a cluster of fear-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village, Trang Bang. The photograph’s central figure is a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, screaming in terror.

The image offers a timeless statement about war’s indiscriminate effects. And it has given rise to media myths, those false, dubious, or improbable tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

Most notable of the myths associated with the photograph is that U.S.-piloted aircraft carried out the napalm attack.

That version has been invoked so often and so blithely as to become insidious. An essay posted yesterday at the Milwaukee Independent, an online news magazine, suggests as much.

The essay recalled the career of John G. Morris, a once-prominent photo editor for the New York Times and other news organizations who died a year ago at 100.

The essay invoked the myth that Americans were responsible for the napalm drop at Trang Bang, stating:

“It was at Morris’s insistence that graphic images of the Vietnam war taken by two Associated Press photographers made the front page of the New York Times: in 1968, Morris challenged official policy and the supposed requirements of good taste with Eddie Adams’s image of a Vietcong prisoner at the moment of his execution by a South Vietnamese police officer; and in 1972 he used a similarly arresting image by Huynh Cong (‘Nick’) Ut, of a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing the US napalm attack that had burned off her clothes.”

But it was no “US napalm attack.”

The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

Christopher Wain of Britain’s ITN television network, who saw the attack, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

Fox Butterfield of the New York Times reported from Trang Bang that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm on his troops and a cluster of civilians.”

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

I address, and debunk, the media myths of the “Napalm Girl” in a chapter in the expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong. I close the chapter by considering why the photograph has been so often mischaracterized as showing the effects of “U.S. napalm” or a “U.S. air strike.”

Perhaps it is mostly a case of error repeated so often that it is accepted without second thought.

Or perhaps, as I write in Getting It Wrong, it is a representation of what Shelby Steele “has termed ‘poetic truth’ — the bending of ‘the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position. It makes the actual truth seem secondary or irrelevant.'”

The “Napalm Girl” photograph long has been associated with a narrative that the U.S. role in Vietnam was amoral and foolhardy, that Kim Phuc’s burns were, in the words of the Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott, “the collateral damage of a war we made.”

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop at Trang Bang has served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.

But to make such a connection, I write, “is to misrepresent the photograph, distort its meaning, and garble the circumstances of its making.” It is to allow narrative to obscure fact.

WJC

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