Leslie Gelb, a former columnist for the New York Times and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says President Obama’s recent Asia trip was so thin on accomplishment that it revealed a “disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power.”
Gelb, writing at the Daily Beast blog, also says Obama “should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making.” He further suggests that “Obama might take responsibility himself, as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.”
There’s no argument here with Gelb’s assessment about Obama’s foreign policy. It projects a decided whiff of amateurishness, indeed.
But on the point about Kennedy’s having taken responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle: Well, there’s a whiff of media myth in that claim.
As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, Kennedy in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, sought to spread the blame to the U.S. news media, particularly the New York Times. On separate occasions in 1961 and 1962, Kennedy told the Times‘ publisher and its managing editor that had the newspaper printed all it knew about the pending invasion, the country and his administration would have been spared a major foreign policy embarrassment. That is, the pre-invasion publicity would have made an assault untenable.
But as James (Scotty) Reston, the veteran Times columnist and correspondent in Washington, correctly noted, Kennedy’s comments were “a cop-out.”
The decision to press ahead with the attempt to topple Fidel Castro rested squarely with the Kennedy administration.
Kennedy’s comments, made to Publisher Orvil E. Dryfoos and Managing Editor Turner Catledge, had the effect of solidifying the media-driven myth that the Times had censored itself in reporting about the run-up to the invasion.
The purported self-censorship took place in the days before the invasion, which failed utterly in its objective of toppling Castro.
But close reading of the newspaper in early April 1961 makes it clear that the Times did not spike it reports about the pending invasion of Cuba. The newspaper did not censor itself. The Times’ coverage about preparations for the assault was in fact fairly detailed and prominently displayed on front pages in the days before the invasion force of Cuban exiles hit the beaches.
The related notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion also is utter fancy.
But the anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship lives on as a timeless lesson about why the news media should not bow or defer to power. It’s a potent, durable, and compelling tale.
It’s also apocryphal.