W. Joseph Campbell

The Woodward, Bernstein stories that ‘toppled’ Nixon: And they were?

In Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Reviews, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 19, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Media myths sometimes make appearances in odd and baffling ways. As non-sequiturs, even.

Take, for example, this pithy mischaracterization of Watergate, offered a number of years ago by the New York media critic, Michael Wolff:

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon’s tapes got Nixon

“The Washington Post didn’t like [Richard] Nixon — and because of that bad blood we got Watergate.”

As I pointed out soon after Wolff’s observation was posted at Newser.com, such an interpretation is absurd. Nixon and the Post may not have much liked each other, but bad blood had nothing to do with how the Watergate scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 was the culmination not of the Post’s reporting but of the collective investigative efforts by a variety of agencies and entities, including bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon’s release of the telltale evidence of Watergate — the secret tape recordings he had made of private conversations in the Oval Office.

The so-called “smoking gun tape” captured Nixon obstructing justice by approving a plan to divert the FBI investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

If not for evidence of criminality captured on the tapes, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal.

Which brings us to the Christian Science Monitor’s review of Being Nixon: A Man Divided, a new biography by Evan Thomas. The review was posted online the other day and contained this erroneous and baffling statement:CSM small logo_65x45

“Even the Woodward and Bernstein stories in The Washington Post that toppled Nixon, bolstered by the subsequent best-selling book and Robert Redford movie (‘All the President’s Men’), are, for many current readers, as remote as D-Day or Pearl Harbor.”

The “toppled” passage is erroneous because the reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post assuredly did not bring down Nixon. Woodward, in fact, has insisted on that point from time to time: For example, he told an interviewer in 2004:

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

The “toppled” passage is baffling because Thomas makes no such claim in his book. Indeed, he seems careful not to indulge in media-driven myths. (As I noted at the time at Media Myth Alert, Thomas’ 2010 book, The War Lovers, repeated one of American journalism’s best-known myths, the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.)

According to the book’s index, “Woodward” is mentioned on six pages in Being Nixon; “Bernstein” appears on four pages. None of those pages contains the mythical claim that their reporting forced Nixon’s resignation. (“Topple” or “toppled” appear not at all in the book.)

So it is rather baffling that the Monitor’s review would state that claim so matter-of-factly. It’s not as if the book’s content led the reviewer astray.

Moreover, it is revealing and instructive to consider what were the most important Watergate articles by Woodward and Bernstein.

I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary [at the Democratic headquarters]. The Post was the first news organization to establish a connection between the burglars and the  White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds … were used to fund the break-in, the first to implicate the former attorney general John Mitchell in the scandal, and the first to link [senior Nixon aide H.R.] Haldeman to Watergate.”

But those articles, separately or collectively, were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency. They weren’t “stories … that toppled Nixon.”

In any case, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting notably failed to disclose what were decisive elements of the scandal — the Nixon administration’s efforts to cover up the crimes of Watergate and the existence of the secret White House tapes.

WJC

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No, ‘Salon’ — Hearst’s yellow journalism didn’t cause war with Spain

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

In a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Salon indulges in the hoary media myth that Hearst’s “yellow journalism” provoked war with Spain in 1898.

Salon’s essay was posted today beneath the headline: “Donald Trump’s third-rate ego monument: The billionaire wanna-be president who makes Trump look like a chump.”

Wasn't Heast's war

Wasn’t Heast’s war

As the headline suggests, the essay is no subtle or thoughtful treatment of Hearst. It reflects none of the sophistication and insight of Hearst’s most recent and skilled biographers, David Nasaw (who wrote The Chief in 2000) and Kenneth Whyte (author of The Uncrowned King in 2008).

Significantly, the Salon essay errs in claiming that Hearst’s flamboyant journalism of the late 19th century brought on the Spanish-American War, declaring:

“Headline grabbing was, literally, Hearst’s business. His combustible personality had already been responsible for the ‘yellow journalism’ that got the U.S. into war in Cuba in 1898. Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Before unpacking that mythical claim, let’s briefly consider the defining features of Hearst’s journalism of the late 1890s — and how and why it came to be called “yellow journalism.”

Hearst, who was 32 when he came to New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and acquired a moribund daily, the Journal, infused his journalism with self-promotion, as did many fin-de-siecle American newspapers.

What set Hearst apart from his many competitors in New York was a willingness to spend generously in news-gathering and an inclination to go bold in news-presentation: His Journal was typographically more engaging and experimental than its staid rival newspapers.

Jail-breaking journalism

Activist, and bold in presentation

Moreover, Hearstian journalism of the late 1890s was animated by activism — by a notion that newspapers had an obligation to do more than comment and criticize, but to inject themselves in the issues of the day and try to correct the wrongs in public life, to fill the voids created by government inaction or incompetence.

The “journalism of action,” it was called. And it borrowed from “government by journalism,” which William T. Stead advanced in Britain in the 1880s.

Hearst’s “journalism of action,” as I pointed out in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, was “a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news.”

The most dramatic and celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” was the jailbreak in Havana in 1897 that freed a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. A reporter for Hearst’s Journal organized the escape of Cisneros, who was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York, where Hearst organized a rapturous reception for her in midtown Manhattan.

Hearst shook up New York City journalism, and his foes chafed at his aggressive brand of journalism. Some of them openly hoped that the young publisher would spend himself into bankruptcy. In early 1897, one of the rivals came up with “yellow journalism” as a jeering rejection of what Hearst was then calling “the new journalism.” The sneer “yellow journalism” stuck; even Hearst’s Journal came to embrace the term.

But by no means did “yellow journalism” cause, foment, or otherwise bring about the war in 1898, a brief conflict that confirmed America as a global power.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even” Hearst’s Journal.

Assertions that the yellow press caused the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, 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, where an islandwide rebellion had flared in early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the armed challenge to Spanish rule, Madrid sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and its generals imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” by which thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — were herded into garrison towns so they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy gave rise to much suffering and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation, creating a humanitarian disaster on Cuba that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” as I wrote in Yellow Journalism.

The desperate conditions on Cuba in 1897 and early 1898 were frequent topics of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s Journal. His newspaper reported on “reconcentration” but in no way created the policy’s devastating effects.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by the “reconcentration” policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, were pivotal in the American decision to go to war over Cuba in 1898; the content of the yellow press was irrelevant.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“If the yellow press did foment the war, researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time. But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the [William] McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor. It was regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain.”

A few years after the war, the Journal pointedly scoffed at claims that it fomented the war in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits. “Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal noted in 1902, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

WJC

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‘SF Examiner’ marks 150th anniversary with dose of media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 11, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The San Francisco Examiner marked its 150th anniversary today with a dash of media myth about its most famous owner, William Randolph Hearst, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Media baron Hearst

Hearst: Started with the Examiner

The newspaper, which has survived near-death encounters in its turbulent past, asserted the following in an online overview of its history:

“Led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, newspapers were largely responsible for creating the Spanish-American War through the birth of yellow journalism.”

But how that worked, how the newspapers created or fomented that war, was left unsaid, as was the nature of the contribution of “yellow journalism.”

For that matter, “yellow journalism” was left undefined.

But the short answer is that newspapers — and yellow journalism — were not “responsible,” largely or otherwise, for the war in which the United States crushed Spanish military forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, an outcome that signaled America’s emergence as a global power.

As I discussed in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer — the leading exemplars of the yellow press — exerted very modest agenda-setting influence in the run-up to the war.SFExaminer loho_Twitter

I noted:

“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” an American warship that blew up while on a friendly visit to Havana in mid-February 1898.

The destruction of the Maine — in a harbor under Spanish control — was a trigger for the war.

But if newspapers had been responsible for the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers [in the administration of President William McKinley] nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote Yellow Journalism.

So what, then, were the proximate causes of war in 1898?

Fundamentally, the war was the consequence of a three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cuban insurgents, who in 1895 had launched a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, would accept nothing short of independence from Madrid. Spain, for domestic and economic reasons, was adamant not to grant Cuban independence — and sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island in an attempt to put down the rebellion. And the United States had become deeply frustrated with Spain’s inability to bring an end to a conflict on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Not only did Spain send thousands of troops to Cuba, it sought to deprive the rebels of the aid and support of non-combattants by herding  women, children, and old men into reconcentration centers. The Cuban non-combattants suffered grievously; tens of thousands of them died from starvation and illness in the reconcentration centers.

By 1898, a humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba.

The diplomatic standoff, and the effects of Spain’s reconcentration policy, were the real reasons for the war.

Not Hearst. Not Pulitzer. Not “yellow journalism.”

As for “yellow journalism”: The term was coined in 1897 and it came to represent a flamboyant genre defined by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call frequent attention to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

It was, as I noted in Yellow Journalism, a genre that scarcely could be “called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

WJC

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