W. Joseph Campbell

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‘Deep Throat’ outed self, five years ago today

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 31, 2010 at 3:39 pm

It’s been five years since W. Mark Felt outed himself as the shadowy “Deep Throat” source of the Watergate scandal, the former No. 2 official at the FBI who in places like parking garages periodically passed information to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Remarkably, Felt’s identity as the elusive “Deep Throat” had remained a secret (and was the subject of often-intense speculation) for more than 30 years, until Vanity Fair published an article on May 31, 2005, disclosing Felt’s “Deep Throat” role.

Felt was then 91 and in declining health. He died in 2008.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Washington Post was central to uncovering Watergate scandal. (Stanley I. Kutler, the leading historian of Watergate, once wrote that the “endless, pointless game of trying to identify Deep Throat” was a distraction from the lessons of Watergate.)

Getting It Wrong includes a chapter addressing and debunking what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–that the reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

I write that the “guessing game about the identity of the ‘Deep Throat’ source provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

I also note:

“They and the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source became central figures” in what the Philadelphia Inquirer described as “the parlor game that would not die. … With each passing year, as ‘Deep Throat’s’ cloak of anonymity remained securely in place, his perceived role in Watergate gained gravitas.”

“And so,” I write, “… did the roles of Woodward and Bernstein.”

Although many people were named in the guessing game about “Deep Throat,” Felt always ranked high on the roster of likely candidates. As I note in Getting It Wrong, speculation about who was “Deep Throat” began in June 1974, with a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, and continued periodically for the next 31 years.

The Journal article appeared soon after publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about Watergate in which they introduced the furtive source they called “Deep Throat.” The Journal article described Felt as the top suspect.

But Felt repeatedly denied having been “Deep Throat.” He was quoted as saying in the Journal article in 1974:

“I’m just not that kind of person.”

He told the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1999 that he “would have been more effective” had he indeed been Woodward’s secretive source, adding:

“Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

On the day Felt was confirmed to have been “Deep Throat,” his family issued a statement calling him “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”

But Felt hardly was such a noble character.

In his senior position at the FBI, Felt had authorized illegal burglaries as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground in the early 1970s.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.




Recalling Mansfield’s contribution to unraveling Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 29, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Politics Daily posted yesterday an admiring piece–make that a hagiographic piece–about former U.S. Senate leader Mike Mansfield, saying his “savvy and sensibilities … are what our politics need on Memorial Day 2010.”

Well, maybe.

Mansfield (left), who died in 2001, was a Democrat from Montana and the Senate’s longest-serving majority leader, holding the position from 1961-1977.

In its most interesting passage, the Politics Daily commentary recalled Mansfield’s seldom-remembered contribution to unraveling the Watergate scandal, which culminated with President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

The commentary noted:

“He insisted on a special Senate committee to investigate the unfolding sins of the Nixon era … Because of Mike’s strategic decision to make the Senate investigation open, fair and bipartisan, the country supported a constitutional political process that, for the first time in history, forced a crook out of the White House.”

While that’s a bit over the top, it is clear that Mansfield’s efforts as majority leader to empanel a bipartisan select committee was crucial to the outcome of the scandal, which broke in June 1972 with the arrest of burglars inside Democratic National headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

As Stanley I. Kutler, the leading historian of the scandal, wrote in his fine book, The Wars of Watergate:

“Watergate might have remained as the story-that-never-was had it not been for the determination of Mike Mansfield and Sam Ervin.”

Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, “played a crucial role in securing Senate passage of a resolution calling for the creation of a Select Committee to investigate illegal and unethical conduct in the 1972 presidential campaign,” Kutler wrote. “Mansfield, meanwhile, worked behind the scenes to marshal Democratic support for the resolution. He kept Ervin in the forefront, shrewdly using Ervin’s political capital among Southern Democrats and Republican senators.”

Ervin presided over the hearing of the select committee, which riveted much of the country during the summer of 1973. Its investigation led to the disclosure that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded most Oval Office conversations. Those tapes were crucial to revealing Nixon’s complicity in the scandal and forcing his resignation.

So why is this of interest, and pertinent, to Media Myth Alert?

Recalling Mansfield’s role illustrates anew how a variety of forces were needed to bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency–a point raised in Getting It Wrong, my soon-to-be-published book that debunks prominent media-driven myths, those false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity 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, I argue, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings.”

The media-centric interpretation of Watergate is that the investigative reporting of the Washington Post was what brought down Nixon. A related claim is that if its reporting didn’t exactly take Nixon down, the Post alone kept the story alive in the summer and fall of 1972, when few people and institutions were much interested in Watergate.

Such claims are mistaken.

The Post didn’t take down Nixon; as leading figures at the newspaper have insisted as much from time to time over the years.

Nor was the Post alone in digging into Watergate during the summer and fall 1972. As I note in Getting It Wrong, rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times also pursued the scandal during those months.

Despite some revealing reporting by the Post and other news organizations, the dimensions of the Watergate scandal were hardly certain by May 1973, when the Senate select committee convened. It was “like an unassembled picture puzzle with crucial pieces missing,” Ervin recalled in his memoir of Watergate.

But with the committee’s hearings during summer of 1973, the scope of the scandal became clearer, leading relentlessly to Nixon and his closest aides.



‘Good narrative trumps good history’

In 1897, Cinematic treatments, Furnish the war, Media myths, Reviews, Yellow Journalism on May 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm

The Shotgun Blog today quotes an excerpt from my recent review of Evan Thomas’ disappointing new book, The War Lovers, and offers this telling observation:

“A good narrative trumps good history about nine times out of ten.”

The Shotgun Blog excerpt carries the headline, “You Furnish the Myth, We’ll Furnish the History,” and includes this passage from my review of War Lovers:

“Thomas embraced the media-driven myth of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to furnish the war with Spain–a vow supposedly contained in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington, on assignment in Cuba” in 1897.

The Remingt0n-Hearst anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal, as I discuss in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

I revisit the anecdote in the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths—false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The Shotgun Blog’s observation about good narrative routinely trumping good history is worthy of rumination, as it does often seem to be the case. It is a topic that I address in Getting It Wrong.

A reason narratives like the Remington-Hearst anecdote triumph is that they are succinct, savory, and easily remembered–as are many media-driven myths.

The Remington-Hearst anecdote is almost too good to be false, a narrative so delicious that it deserves to be true.

The anecdote lives on “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation,” I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“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.

“It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war—specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule—was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

“Anyone reading U.S. newspapers in early 1897 would have been well aware that Cuba was a theater of a nasty war. By then, the Cuban rebellion had reached island-wide proportion and not a single province had been pacified by Spain’s armed forces.”

What pressed the “furnish the war” anecdote unequivocally into the public consciousness–what sealed the narrative’s triumph over history, if you will–was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture based loosely on Hearst’s life and times.

Kane was not a commercial success, in part because of Hearst’s attempts to block its release, but the film is consistently ranked by critics among the finest ever made, as I note in Getting It Wrong.

A scene early in the film shows Charles Foster Kane, the newspaper tycoon who invites comparisons to Hearst, at his desk, tie untied, quarreling with his former guardian. They are interrupted by Kane’s business manager, “Mr. Bernstein,” who reports that a cable a just arrived from a correspondent in Cuba.

Bernstein reads the contents and Kane, who is played superbly by Orson Welles, dictates a reply that paraphrases Hearst’s purported vow.

Orson Welles

“You provide the prose poems,” Kane says, “and I’ll provide the war.”

Bernstein congratulates Kane on a splendid and witty reply.

Saying he rather likes it himself, Kane instructs Bernstein to send it at once.



Media myths, the ‘junk food of journalism’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Media-driven myths, the subject of my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity—false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The  myths addressed and debunked in the book include the notion that two intrepid reporters for the Washington Post took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency, that Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now television program brought an end to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, and that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

“In a way,” I write in Getting It Wrong, media myths “are the junk food of journalism—alluring and delicious, perhaps, but not especially wholesome or nourishing.”

But why bother: Why devote a book to debunking media-driven myths?

It’s a question that, somewhat to my surprise, arises not infrequently.

Several answers offer themselves.

For one, there is inherent value is seeking to set straight the historical record. As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the effort to dismantle [media myths] is certainly worthy, if only to insist on a demarcation between fact and fiction.” That effort is aligned with a core objective of newsgathering—that of getting it right.

Media-driven myths, moreover, are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can have adverse consequences. They tend, for example, to minimize the nuance and complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. It’s effortless and undemanding to say the Washington Post brought down Nixon, that Murrow ended McCarthyism, or that Hearst plunged the United States into war with Spain. The historical reality in each of those cases is, of course, significantly more complex.

So media-driven myths distort popular understanding about the roles and functions of journalism in American society. They tend to confer on the news media far more power and influence than they typically wield.

Media influence, I write in the book, usually “is trumped by other forces” and further undercut by the traditional self-view of American journalists as messengers first, rather than as makers and shapers of news.

What’s more, the news media these days are too splintered and diverse—print, broadcast, cable, satellite, online—to exert much in the way of collective and sustained influence on policymakers or media audiences.

Thus, debunking media-driven myths can help to locate media influence in a more coherent context. Getting It Wrong offers the case that such influence tends to modest, nuanced, and situational.

There are occasions, though, when the splintered news media coalesce and devote exceptionally intense attention to a single topic—such as Hurricane Katrina’s rampage along the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago. The news media gave themselves high marks for their coverage of the disaster’s aftermath, especially of the federal government’s fitful response.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the coverage also was characterized by highly exaggerated reports of nightmarish violence and wanton criminality in New Orleans in the hurricane’s wake. The misreporting of the disaster’s aftermath, I write, effectively “defamed a battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.”

Thus, another reason why debunking matters—media-driven myths can and do feed prejudices and stereotypes.

Finally, confronting media myths discourages the tendency to regard prominent journalists in extreme terms—as heroes or villains. Piercing the myth surrounding Murrow renders him somewhat less Olympian. Similarly, debunking the myth about Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain makes him seem less manipulative, and less demonic.

Getting It Wrong is a work with a provocative edge. Given that it takes on some of the most treasured stories in American journalism, it could not be otherwise.


This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

On version variability and the ‘Cronkite moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths on May 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

As I note in my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, version variability–the imprecision that alters or distorts an anecdote in its retelling–can be a marker of media-driven myths.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

So it is with the purported “Cronkite moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite asserted in a special televised report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson supposedly saw the Cronkite program and promptly realized the war effort was doomed.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president is reputed to have said in reaction to Cronkite’s pronouncement, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or, as a columnist for Townhall.com wrote yesterday, Johnson “said to an aide, ‘If we’ve lost Walter, then we’ve lost the war.'”

Those are just two of many variations of Johnson’s supposed response to Cronkite’s downbeat assessment.

Other versions include:

“I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

“If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “Version variability of that magnitude signals implausibility.”

I also note that version variability “suggests more than sloppiness in journalistic research or a reluctance to take time to trace the derivation of the popular anecdote. The varying accounts of Johnson’s purported reactions represent another, compelling reason for regarding the ‘Cronkite moment’ with doubt and skepticism.”

Moreover, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired February 27, 1968. At the time, Johnson was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of his longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

Johnson teased Connally about his age, saying: “Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard—and I might say late—trying to maintain it, too.”

And even if Johnson later heard—or heard about—Cronkite’s assessment, it was represented no epiphany for the president, no burst of clarity about a policy gone sour.

A few weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-thumping speech in Minneapolis, in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

The speech was delivered March 18, 1968, and in it, the president declared:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So in the weeks immediately following the purported “Cronkite moment,” Johnson maintained an aggressive public stance on the war. He clearly wasn’t swayed by Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis.



Bra-burning and home luxuries lost: Whoa

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

If I read this article correctly, bra-burning contributed to a decline in the late 20th century of a taste for small luxuries around the home.

Media-driven myths have been mistakenly credited with bringing on wars and bringing down presidents. But bringing about a decline in household luxuries?

This is a first.

The article recalls with praise Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which came out in 1861 and offered hundreds of pointers on cooking, supervising servants, and choosing decor.

Says the article, which appeared the other day in the Seattle Times and elsewhere:

“The dang thing had 2,751 entries—from how to cut a side of lamb, to just when to put away the white summer curtains—spelled out across more than 1,680 pages. And back in 1861, millions of copies were sold. Millions.

“Then,” the article says, “came the bra-burning latter half of the 20th century, and along with it permanent-press sheets, the paper napkin, and Hamburger Helper served up on melamine plates.

“We say, Whoa. We might have ditched too much. Lost all hints of luxury in the household department.”

I say, Whoa.

What did bra-burning supposedly have to do with lost “hints of luxury” at home? The article doesn’t say. Nor does it say explain how bra-burning helped to define the “latter half of the 20th century.”

Bra-burning in fact was a dramatically overstated phenomenon, as I discuss in a chapter in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths–well-known and often-told stories about the news media that are dubious, apocryphal, or wildly exaggerated.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the notion of bra-burning took hold in the days after the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J., on September 7, 1968, and was promoted, probably unwittingly, by two syndicated columnists.

On that September afternoon, “about 100 women from New York City, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere arrived by bus at the Atlantic City boardwalk,” I write, adding:

“They were, according to the New York Times, ‘mostly middle-aged careerists and housewives’ and they set up a picket line … across from the Convention Center. They were there, as one participant declared, ‘to protest the degrading image of women perpetuated by the Miss America pageant,’ which took place that night inside the Convention Center.”

A highlight of their protest came when the demonstrators tossed into a barrel what they termed “instruments of torture,” including brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.

The organizers of the daylong protest, who included the activist and former child actor Robin Morgan, have long insisted that bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest.

But the notion that bra-burning was a dramatic element of the demonstration at Atlantic City was encouraged by syndicated columnists, including Harriett Van Horne.

Soon after the protest, Van Horne wrote that the demonstrators surely were frustrated– “scarred by consorting with the wrong men. Men who do not understand the way to a woman’s heart, i.e., to make her feel utterly feminine, desirable and almost too delicate for this hard world. … No wonder she goes to Atlantic City and burns her bra.”

Van Horne was not at the protest, however. Nor was Art Buchwald, then American journalism’s leading humorist, who nonetheless played on the bra-burning trope in a column published in the Washington Post and other newspapers.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Buchwald wrote that he had been “flabbergasted to read that about 100 women had picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City against ‘ludicrous beauty standards that had enslaved the American woman.’”

He added: “The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Buchwald’s slyly humorous “characterization of the protest at Atlantic City introduced the notion of flamboyant bra-burning to a national audience, conjuring as it did a powerful mental image of angry women setting fire to bras and twirling them, defiantly, for all … to see.”

But the dramatic burning of bras as a form of feminist protest wasn’t a defining feature of the second half of the 20th century. More than anything, it was an effect of a humor columnist’s satiric riff.


At HuffPo books

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2010 at 8:27 am

Check out my guest post at the Huffington Post books page about Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

I discuss the book, which will be published soon by University of California Press, and address reasons that help explain the tenacity and enduring appeal of media-driven myths.

I write:

“They are, first of all, deliciously good stories–too good, almost, to be disbelieved.

“They also are appealingly reductive, in that they minimize complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. The Washington Post no more brought down [President Richard] Nixon than Walter Cronkite swayed [President Lyndon] Johnson’s views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other media myths endure because they present unambiguous, easy-to-remember explanations for complex historic events.

“Some media-driven myths can be self-flattering, offering up heroes in a profession more accustomed to scorn and criticism than applause.

“More important, though, is that media-driven myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and significance in what journalists do. These myths affirm the centrality of the news media in public life and ratify the notion the media are powerful, even decisive actors.

“To identify these tales as media-driven myths is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and so many others, assume them to be.”

That’s often the case: Because the media are everywhere, it is easy, as Robert J. Samuelson once wrote, to confound their presence with power.

And as the sociologist Herbert J. Gans has observed:

“If news audiences had to respond to all the news to which they are exposed, they would not have time to live their own lives. In fact, people screen out many things, including the news, that could interfere with their own lives.”


‘A debunker’s work is never done’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 21, 2010 at 6:14 pm

So notes the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer in his review of my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, posted today at slate.com.

And what a generous, engaging, and insightful review it is.

Under the headline “The Master of Debunk,” Shafer notes that “the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.

“Toting big guns and an itchy trigger-finger is American University professor W. Joseph Campbell, whose new book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism flattens established myths that you were brought up to believe were true.”

Shafer’s review specifically discusses a variety of media-driven myths, including William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the so-called “Cronkite moment” that supposedly altered President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy; the Bay of Pigs suppression myth that erroneously says President John F. Kennedy persuaded the New York Times to spike a story about the pending U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba, and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

Shafer rightly points out that “a debunker’s work is never done” and to that end notes my recent post at Media Myth Alert about Evan Thomas’ new book, The War Lovers. The book embraces myths of the yellow press period in American journalism, including the Hearst vow.

Shafer thoughtfully considers the tenacity of media-driven myths, writing:

“Some myths endure because the stories are so compelling, like the Hearst tale and the alleged mayhem caused by Orson Welles’ [War of the Worlds] broadcast. Others survive because our prejudices nourish them (“crack babies,” bra burners) or because pure repetition has drummed them into our heads, smothering the truth in the process.

“The best tonic for the brain fever caused by media myths is an open mind and a free inquiry,” he writes.

Shafer wraps up the review by invoking this observation, by Jonathan Rauch:

“It is the error we punish, not the errant.”

Shafers adds:

“Of course when you do such a good job punishing the error, as Campbell does, you don’t need to bother with the errant.”



Just go, Rambo

In Debunking, New York Times on May 21, 2010 at 6:56 am

At least one Connecticut newspaper is having some fun with the dissembling of U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal about what he did during the Vietnam War.

The Republican American of Waterbury has taken to calling the brittle, strikingly thin Blumenthal “Rambo,” after the beefy fictional hero of cinematic treatments of the war.

And the newspaper has, with tongue undeniably in cheek, has taken to calling Rambogate” the furor that has erupted over Blumenthal’s periodic false claims to have served in Vietnam.

Blumenthal, the state’s attorney general, received at least five deferments that kept him out of the war before landing a coveted place in the Marine Reserve, which was not deployed to Vietnam.

As the New York Times first reported this week, Blumenthal from time to time  has dissembled about his wartime service. The Stamford Advocate in Connecticut added to the controversy yesterday, recalling that Blumenthal in 2008 falsely and publicly claimed:

“I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support.”

The occasion was a Veterans Day parade in November 2008, the newspaper said.

It’s hard to envision how Blumenthal’s candidacy and credibility can survive the damage accompanying such disclosures. The attorney general has acknowledged that he inadvertently “misspoke” on a few occasions about his wartime service.

But these false claims clearly are more serious than an occasional slip of the tongue.

Although he probably won’t, it’s time for Blumenthal to pack it in.

Just go, Rambo.

I remain surprised that more attention hasn’t been devoted to Blumenthal’s  subsidiary fictional claims of having faced abuse and indignities upon his fictional “return” from Vietnam.

As I’ve noted, the news reports quoting Blumenthal as having said veterans were spat upon as they came back from Vietnam should prompt further questions about the senate candidate’s truthfulness.

Serious doubts have been raised over the years about such accounts. And yet, Blumenthal has invoked such claims more than a couple of times.

Perhaps the most thoughtful commentary about the Blumenthal mess appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post. It was written by veteran journalist Henry Allen, himself a former Marine.

Allen wrote:

“Blumenthal didn’t get in trouble for confessing he had ducked Vietnam but for lying that he hadn’t, for saying that he’d served there.

“What demon haunts him and others like him? What inconsolable regret provoked these desperate lies?

“He didn’t have to claim he’d been in Vietnam. He already had the résumé to be a shoo-in candidate. Rich kid, Harvard (editor of the Crimson), reporter at The Washington Post, Yale Law School (editor of the law journal), almost two decades as attorney general, the perfect knowledge-class candidate of the kind favored by modern Democrats. (In looks, however, he does bear an unsettling resemblance to disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer.)”

Yes, more Spitzer than Rambo.

But Rambo ought to go.


Republican American

Blumenthal and his spat-upon claim: More myth?

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 19, 2010 at 4:43 pm

The New York Times articles this week about the Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general who falsely stated he served in Vietnam, mentioned but didn’t explore Blumenthal’s reference to having been spat upon by antiwar protestors.

The Times report Tuesday quoted Jean Risley, chairwoman of the Connecticut Vietnam Veterans Memorial Inc., as saying Blumenthal, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, once described indignities he and other veterans faced upon returning from Vietnam.

“It was a sad moment,” the Times quoted Risley as saying. “He said, ‘When we came back, we were spat on; we couldn’t wear our uniforms.’ It looked like he was sad to me when he said it.”

In a follow-up report today, the Times indirectly quoted former Congressman Christopher H. Shays as saying that at a recent event in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Blumenthal “brought up the subject of his military service and lamented that when ‘we returned from Vietnam’ Americans had spit on soldiers.”

The separate reports of Blumenthal’s recollections about veterans having been spat upon should prompt additional questions about the Senate candidate’s truthfulness–questions that go beyond his false claim of having served in Vietnam during the war. (Blumenthal, the Times has reported, secured “at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970 and took repeated steps that enabled him to avoid going to war, according to records” the newspaper reviewed.)

Doubts have been raised over the years about accounts of soldiers being spat upon as they returned from Vietnam. Jerry Lembcke notably challenged such claims in his 1998 study, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Lembcke noted “that stories of veterans being abused by anti-war activists only surfaced years after the abuses were alleged to have happened.”

He also wrote that his “search through news stories and polls … revealed no basis for the widespread belief that the alleged spitting incidents actually occurred.”

Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran who became an opponent of the war, returned to the topic in 2005, writing in a commentary in the Boston Globe:

“Stories about spat-upon Vietnam veterans are like mercury: Smash one and six more appear. It’s hard to say where they come from. For a book I wrote in 1998 I looked back to the time when the spit was supposedly flying, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on.”

He also noted:

“GIs [returning from Vietnam] landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site?”

Now, I haven’t studied the spat-upon claims to be in a position to embrace Lembcke’s findings, independently. It is a touchy and disputed topic. But I am impressed with the earnest quality of Lembcke’s research.

Moreover, I incorporate in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, a telling observation in Lembcke’s book about the tenacity of myths.

It appears as a chapter-opening quotation in the discussion in Getting It Wrong about the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate:

“Unlike a society with a strong oral tradition, American today remembers its history through visual imagery.”

True enough: The cinema can be a powerful force in pressing media-driven myths into the collective memory.

I also was impressed with Lembcke’s point that myths “help people come to terms with difficult periods of their past. They provide explanations for why things happened. Often, the explanations offered by myths help reconcile disparities between a group’s self-image and the historical record of a group’s behavior.”

Or, as might be paraphrased in the matter of Blumenthal’s dissembling, myths can help reconcile disparities between an individual’s self-image and the record of his behavior.


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