W. Joseph Campbell

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On the high plateau of media distrust

In 1897, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on September 30, 2010 at 10:22 am

A Gallup poll released yesterday suggested that distrust of the news media has reached a high plateau among American adults.

Fifty-seven percent of Gallup’s respondents, the most ever, said they had little or no trust in the “mass media … when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” A year ago, the little-to-no trust response rate was 55 percent; in 2008 it was 56 percent.

As Andrew Malcolm noted at his engaging Top of the Ticket blog, the new “record high” in media distrust was reached “by one lousy percentage point.”

Even so, there’s little comfort in having reached such a plateau. And the factors accounting for a pronounced level of popular distrust are several–and hardly unfamiliar.

Surely one reason is that it’s commonplace to bad-mouth the news media as unreliable and unfair. Media-bashing has long been in fashion–and the news media are prone to beat up on themselves, and their rivals.

A commentary posted yesterday at the Atlantic blog put it well in saying that “media voices increasingly distinguish themselves by telling us not to trust the rest of the mainstream media. Think about all of the mass media today that tells us how stupid mass media is.”

True enough. That has to have an effect.

But the news media have long indulged in aiming brickbats and insults at one another. For the news media, media-bashing has long been an irresistible pasttime.

The ever-appealing and often-invoked epithet “yellow journalism” dates after all to 1897–and the efforts of a New York newspaper editor to find a pithy and imaginative way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Traditional and new, the media are everywhere these days and their ubiquity no doubt fosters some disdain and contempt. A hint of that contempt can be detected in the recent Pew Research Center’s news-consumption survey, which reported that 17 percent of American adults go newsless on a typical day.

Although the news media are everywhere, a sizable portion of the population has little use for them.

Going newsless can’t be easily accomplished, given the variety of readily accessible platforms by which news is delivered. But the going-newsless option is especially pronounced among American adults younger than 30: Pew’s report said 27 percent of that cohort gets no news on a typical day.

The prominent and well-documented fabrication scandals of several years ago doubt have contributed to the plateau of media distrust. The journalistic fraud committed by Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, among others, surely has left a bad taste for the media among many news consumers.

The inclination to distrust the media surely was reinforced by the highly exaggerated news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in 2005.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks prominent media-driven myths, the Katrina coverage was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism. … On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

And that reporting was steeped in error.

The fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall was an occasion to revisit just how shoddy the news coverage was in the storm’s aftermath. And that anniversary fell shortly before Gallup conducted its annual media-trust survey.

Gallup said 1,019 adults were interviewed by telephone in a random survey conducted September 13-16. (The sampling error was plus or minus four percentage points, meaning the level of distrust could be as great as 61 percent, or as narrow as 53 percent.)

Mundane factors probably contribute to the plateau of distrust as well. Staff cuts at many U.S. newspaper, including the unsung heroes manning copy desks, have been blamed for an increase grammar, spelling, and factual errors.

It’s not that newspapers ever were mostly free of such lapses. Anecdotally at least, they seem more frequent and conspicuous. The ombudsman, or reader’s representative, at the Washington Post suggested as much last year in writing that growing numbers of readers were calling on him “to complain about typos and small errors” appearing in the newspaper.

And it’s become a cliché to say that such small-bore errors undermine credibility–or, perhaps more accurately, encourage media distrust.

And then there is the matter of limited viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms, a point I raise in Getting It Wrong.

Few journalists for mainstream national media “consider themselves politically conservative,” I note, referring to surveys conducted in 2004 and 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists. The surveys found that the overwhelming majority of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves to be politically “moderate” or “liberal.”

Interestingly, Gallup reported that “Democrats and liberals remain far more likely than other political and ideological groups to trust the media and to perceive no bias.”

Viewpoint diversity in newsrooms “is an issue not much discussed in American journalism,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But it is hardly irrelevant.”

Especially when distrust of the news media has found such a high plateau.


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Obama, journalism history, and ‘folks like Hearst’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on September 29, 2010 at 9:45 am

President Obama stirred a fair amount of comment and criticism by declaring in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine that Fox News pursues a point of view that’s “ultimately destructive” to the country’s “long-term growth.”

As if Fox News, or any news organization, had such power.

And Obama offered another comment that signaled a less-than-profound grasp of American journalism history.

Media baron W.R. Hearst

That came when he invoked William Randolph Hearst, the much-misunderstood practitioner of activist yellow journalism who came to prominence in the 1890s. Obama said:

“We’ve got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints.”

Hearst, though, was something of an exception among newspaper publishers; there haven’t been many “folks like Hearst” in American journalism. Certainly not in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the most innovative period of Hearst’s years as a press baron.

Hearst arrived in New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and promptly shook a media landscape dominated by the likes of James Gordon Bennett Jr., the often-absent owner of the New York Herald; Joseph Pulitzer, the ailing and churlish proprietor of the New York World, and Charles A. Dana, the prickly force behind the New York Sun.

They all were past their prime, and their newspapers were in decline.

As I discussed in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s entry into New York City journalism was something of “a seismic event.”

By late 1897, he had developed and began pursuing a robust and fairly progressive view of journalism, maintaining that newspapers had a duty and obligation to inject themselves conspicuously into public life, to fill the void left by government inaction and incompetence.

Hearst called this the “journalism of action” or the “journalism that acts.” It was journalism with a social conscience.

His New York Journal insisted in editorials that a newspaper’s duty should not be “confined to exhortation.”

Instead, the Journal declared, when “things are going wrong” the newspaper should step in and “set them right, if possible.”

Hearst’s “journalism of action” embraced an element of what we would recognize as consumer protection. In the aftermath of a snowstorm that swept New York late in January 1897, the Journal set up a relief effort, saying, “The time has come to help the poor who starve, who freeze. Charity’s hand is almost empty.”

There was no more stunning manifestation of Hearst’s activist vision of journalism than the jailbreak his Journal pulled off in Havana in October 1897, freeing a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.

She had been jailed without trial for more than a year in a prison for women. Spanish authorities who then ruled Cuba spurned Hearst’s editorial campaign for Cisneros’ release.

In late August 1897 he sent Karl Decker, a reporter in the Journal‘s Washington bureau, to Havana, with instructions to win Cisneros’ freedom. And with the quiet help of U.S. diplomats in Cuba, and the vital assistance of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker broke Cisneros from prison.


She soon was smuggled out of Cuba and welcomed to New York City in a delirious reception organized by Hearst and the Journal.

It was American journalism’s greatest escape narrative. And it demonstrated the breathtaking scope and potential of the “journalism of action.”

Freeing Cisneros, the Journal declared, was “epochal” and a “supreme achievement of the journalism of action.” (Illicit “jail-breaking journalism” was more like it, scoffed the Chicago Times-Herald.)

Eventually, though, Hearst’s interest in developing the “journalism of action” was supplanted by his soaring, and mostly unfulfilled, political ambitions.

In 1902, Hearst was elected to the first of two terms in Congress.

He sought, but lost, the Democratic nomination for president in 1904. He lost the New York gubernatorial race in 1906. And he twice ran unsuccessfully for New York City mayor.

What’s more, I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “Hearst never completely shook the reputation of a spoiled little rich kid, and the ‘journalism of action’ surely suffered because of his personality.”

In his comment about “folks like Hearst,” Obama also seemed to embrace a version of the “golden age” fallacy, that there was a time in American journalism when newspapers were paragons of objectivity.

That’s a myth, really.

“Objectivity”–or what Richard Taflinger of Washington State University has succinctly termed “the detached and unprejudiced gathering and dissemination of news”–is a normative value or ambition in American journalism.

But it has never been practiced on anything approaching a sustained basis.


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My many thanks to fivefeetoffury and to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post.

How late was Ed Murrow in taking on Joe McCarthy?

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on September 28, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Murrow in 1954

Edward R. Murrow, the “white knight” of American broadcasting, is often credited with having ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Cold War.

Murrow supposedly demolished the McCarthy scourge in a 30-minute television program, See It Now, that aired on CBS on March 9, 1954. The show made notably effective use of footage of the senator’s words, actions, and sometimes-bizarre conduct.

By doing that show, it is said, Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would–or dared.

That, however, is a media-driven myth–a dubious tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

As I write in my new myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy, doing so long after other journalists–among them muckraking columnist Drew Pearson–had become persistent and searching critics of the senator, his record, and his tactics.

Pearson wrote critically about McCarthy as early as February 1950–just days after the senator first raised claims about communists having infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

Pearson also raised searching questions years before Murrow’s program about McCarthy’s tax troubles, his accepting suspicious campaign contributions, and his taking a $10,000 payment from a U.S. government contractor for a 7,000 word article.

McCarthy, I write, “had no more relentless, implacable, or scathing foe in the news media than Drew Pearson.”

And there were other journalists, too, who challenged McCarthy and his ways long before Murrow’s See It Now program in 1954.

So undeniably, Murrow’s on-air takedown of McCarthy was belated.

But it wasn’t quite as late as historian Alan Brinkley suggested in a post yesterday at the Speakeasy blog, sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.

Brinkley wrote:

“Anyone who saw the George Clooney film ‘Good Night, and Good Luck,’ about Edward R. Murrow’s decision to attack Joe McCarthy in 1954, will remember the pervasive fear, indeed terror, of employees of CBS who have hidden their leftist political views. (Even Murrow waited until after the Army-McCarthy hearings began before he took on McCarthy.)”

That last bit isn’t correct.

The Army-McCarthy hearings were convened in April 1954, six or so weeks after Murrow’s program, and ran until June 1954. The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago has called the hearings “the first nationally televised congressional inquiry.” And they led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate in late 1954.

“What made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy, Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer, later wrote, “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings. People saw the evil right there on the tube. ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy.”

The Clooney film that Brinkley mentioned, Good Night, and Good Luck, was an imaginative and clever cinematic treatment of Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy. The film came out in 2005 and included archival footage from Murrow’s show.

“While the movie never explicitly said as much,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it left an inescapable impression that Murrow courageously and single-handedly stopped McCarthy. Many reviewers saw it that way, too.”

For example, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, said Good Night, and Good Luck was about “a group of professional newsmen who with surgical precision remove a cancer from the body politic. They believe in the fundamental American freedoms, and in Sen. Joseph McCarthy they see a man who would destroy those freedoms in the name of defending them. … The instrument of his destruction is Edward R. Murrow, a television journalist above reproach.”

But Murrow wasn’t such a “white knight.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Murrow claimed a master’s degree he never earned, added five years to his age in his employment application at CBS, and in 1956 privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, on techniques of speaking before a television camera.

Such lapses today, I write in Getting It Wrong, would “almost surely disqualify Murrow, or any journalist, from prominent positions in America’s mainstream news media.”


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Indulging in myth on debate’s 50th anniversary

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 27, 2010 at 7:12 am

News outlets indulged in the myth of viewer-listener disagreement right through the 50th anniversary yesterday of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

The myth holds that people who watched the debate on television thought that Senator John F. Kennedy won; those who listened on radio thought Vice President Richard Nixon had the best of it.

The myth was long ago debunked by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in Central States Speech Journal. They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement typically were anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative by which to make confident judgments.

While it has been thoroughly dismantled, the myth lives on as irresistible testimony about the power of television and the importance of image in presidential politics.

An item posted yesterday at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism online site said as much, declaring:

“The face of TV and politics changed forever on this date in history. …

“Those who watched the broadcast of the first ever televised presidential debate declared Kennedy the winner, those who listened on the radio gave the nod to Nixon. Thus, the political world changed forever.”

WLS-TV in Chicago, the city where the debate took place on September 26, 1960, said at its online site yesterday: “Most of the 70 million people who watched the event on television were convinced Kennedy won, and they voted for him in the presidential election of 1960.

“Surveys showed, though, that most of the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. It was the first time a nominee’s appearance may have affected voters.”

In addition, CBS Channel 2 in Chicago declared at its online site:

“Some listening on radio said it seemed like Nixon won. But as many as 74 million Americans were watching on television, and the medium became an overnight unexpected game-changer in our political system.”

As I’ve noted, specific evidence almost never is cited to support such claims about the debate. It’s as if the notion of viewer-listener disagreement is just too good, too delicious to check out–a factor that often characterizes the telling of media-driven myths. It’s a point I make in Getting it Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media myths. (While certainly prominent, the 1960 debate myth is not included in Getting It Wrong.)

There is evidence that a plurality of registered voters thought Kennedy fared better than Nixon in the debate 50 years ago.

But such impressions did not alter the campaign’s dynamic: The race remained a toss-up to Election Day.

Here’s what the evidence shows: A Gallup poll released in October 1960 reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the first debate (of four debates during the campaign). Twenty-three percent thought Nixon was better; 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

The same survey reported Kennedy was narrowly ahead in the race, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

That result represented a slight change from Gallup’s survey taken just before the debate, which reported Nixon leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 46 percent.

Gallup called the post-debate shift too slight to be meaningful.

“The prudent reader can see,” George Gallup, head of the polling organization, wrote in reporting the results, “that polling accuracy 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.”

So, no: The debate 50 years ago didn’t change the “political world … forever.” Television wasn’t an “overnight … game-changer” in presidential campaigns. Nothing of the sort.

Media-driven myths are known to give rise to spin-off or subsidiary myths, a phenomenon I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

An example is the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which holds that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency in the 1970s. The spin-off or subsidiary myth is that Woodward and Bernstein’s work was so widely appealing that it prompted a surge in college students majoring in journalism.

But that wasn’t so: The surge in enrollments in journalism programs predated the Watergate scandal and was due in measure to young women entering the field.

A spin-off of the Kennedy-Nixon debate myth is that the widely watched televised encounter helped Kennedy become better known among Americans. Before then, the argument goes, Kennedy lacked much national recognition. Nixon, on the other hand, was well-known, having been vice president for almost eight years.

But in fact Kennedy had become nationally prominent long before the first debate.

So well-known that he ran well ahead of Nixon in many of the presidential trial heats that Gallup conducted nationally in late 1958 and 1959.

These matchups, while volatile, were seen by Gallup as early tests of a prospective candidate’s political strength.

The Gallup trial heat in December 1958 had Kennedy leading Nixon by 59 percent to 41 percent.

Kennedy was favored over Nixon by a larger margin, 61 percent to 39 percent, in the trial heat reported in July 1959.

To have polled as well as he did so long before the 1960 campaign, Kennedy simply could not have been an unknown in national politics.


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My many thanks to fivefeetoffury and Ed Driscoll for linking to this post.

Who won ’60 debate? Can’t say: Didn’t see it on TV

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 26, 2010 at 8:33 am

Sander Vanocur has been much in demand in the run-up to today’s 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon televised presidential debate.

The 82-year-old Vanocur is sharp, witty, and droll–and the sole surviving member of the media panel that questioned the candidates during the debate on September 26, 1960.


Vanocur, a retired NBC newsman, has appeared on a number of panels in Washington that have examined the implications and legacies of the encounter between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. He’s also to participate on a panel today in Chicago, where the Kennedy-Nixon debate took place.

Among the comments that Vanocur has offered at these look-back events is:

“I don’t know who won the debate: I didn’t see it on television.”

He made such a remark yesterday, during a panel discussion at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news in downtown Washington. (It’s where my new myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, was launched in June.)

The comment “I didn’t see it on television” suggests the tube was decisive that night 50 years ago–and even was decisive to the outcome of the 1960 election.

Debate coverage, 1960

Which it wasn’t.

Nixon supposedly lost the debate among television viewers because he looked so poorly, what with sweaty brow, wan complexion, and ill-chosen gray suit. But among radio listeners, he is said to have bested Kennedy.

That, anyway, is the widely told media myth that has come to define the first presidential debate.

It is also an explanation for Vanocur’s comment: You had to see the debate on television to appreciate fully the importance that image made that night.

Time magazine was among the news organizations to have repeated the debate myth in the run-up to the 50th anniversary, stating:

“As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. .. Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner. Many say Kennedy won the election that night.”

But television images were decisive neither in the debate (the first of four during the fall campaign), nor in the 1960 election.

David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in the Central States Speech Journal in 1987, thoroughly dismantled the notion that disagreement among TV viewers and radio listeners characterized the debate 50 years ago.

They identified serious flaws in the anecdotal reports and the limited post-debate surveys that suggested there had been such a divergence of opinion in assessing the Kennedy- Nixon encounter.

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s beleaguered appearance much contributed to views about the debate.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” Vancil and Pendell 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.”

Indeed. The Washington Post declared in its post-debate editorial:

“Of the two performances Mr. Nixon’s probably was the smoother.”

Vancil and Pendell also pointed out that “the inference that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Nixon’s supporters may have been dismayed by his appearance that night; but that factor was scarcely enough to prompt them to alter their opinions about the vice president’s candidacy and opt for Kennedy.

The debate 50 years ago only slightly nudged public opinion–and any effect it had on voters dissipated by election day in November.

On the eve of that debate, the U.S. electorate was split. According to the Gallup poll before the encounter in Chicago, 47 percent of registered voters favored Nixon, 46 percent favored Kennedy, and 7 percent were undecided.

The Gallup poll immediately after the first debate put Kennedy ahead by three percentage points, 49-46, among registered voters. (Gallup noted in reporting the post-debate results: “polling accuracy 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.”)

The popular vote for president was quite close: Kennedy won by about 113,000 votes–a margin of just 0.1 percent.

The first debate had at best a modest effect in shifting public opinion–and was a wash in the overall sweep of the 1960 presidential campaign.


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Woodward’s new book stirs retelling of Watergate myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

The pre-publication publicity and reviews about Bob Woodward‘s new book, Obama’s Wars, have inevitably stirred fresh retellings of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, in which Woodward figures prominently.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The heroic-journalist meme can be distilled to a single sentence–as CNN commentator Jack Cafferty demonstrated in a blog post the other day.

“In 1974,” Cafferty wrote, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon with their reporting on Watergate.”

And demonstrating anew that media-driven myths can travel far and well, the Daily Telegraph in London declared the other day in a profile of Woodward that his collaboration with Bernstein brought them “global fame” for “breaking the Watergate scandal and forcing Richard Nixon’s resignation in the early 1970s.”

The venerable BBC, in its profile, said of Woodward:

“The veteran journalist was at the heart of the scandal that rocked the White House and brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.

“Along with Carl Bernstein, his colleague at the Washington Post, Woodward was instrumental in uncovering a series of abuses of power that reached the highest level of the administration.”

I address, and debunk, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

Among the many elements of the myth’s debunking, I note that principals at the Washington Post have sought periodically over the years to dismiss the notion the newspaper was central to Nixon’s fall.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period and beyond, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the foiled burglary at Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.:

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

And Woodward, himself, has concurred, albeit in earthier terms.  “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he said in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review.

Complexity-avoidance, I write in Getting It Wrong, also helps explain the tenacity of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate. Like many media myths, the heroic-journalist meme minimizes the intricacy of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations.

In the case of Watergate, it is far easier to focus on the purported exploits of Woodward and Bernstein than it is to try to grapple with the intricacies and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal.

Far more significant and decisive to Watergate’s outcome were the contributions of federal prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. They were the forces in that succeeded in identifying Nixon’s criminal attempt to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal–the misconduct that led to his resignation.

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, and bipartisan congressional panels, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

I further write:

“This is not to say the Post’s reporting on Watergate was without distinction.” Indeed, the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973, for its reporting about the scandal in the summer and fall of 1972–during the four months following the foiled breakin at the Watergate.

But by late October 1972, the Post’s investigation into Watergate had run “out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, later acknowledged.

As earnest as their reporting was, “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Nor did they disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system that proved so critical to Nixon’s fate.

Nixon, I write, “likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Now that’s what “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”


Kennedy-Nixon debate myth emerges–as predicted

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 24, 2010 at 6:40 am

As predicted, the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the historic Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate has sparked references to the hardy and enticing media myth of TV viewer-radio listener disagreement.

The myth has it that Senator John F. Kennedy won the debate among television viewers while Vice President Richard M. Nixon was thought to have prevailed by most radio listeners.

That’s essentially what Newton Minow said yesterday in an interview on radio station WBEZ in Chicago, the city where the first Kennedy-Nixon debate took place on September 26, 1960. (Minow in 1961 was appointed by Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission. He’s best known for having called television programming a “vast wasteland.”)

Minow declared in the radio interview:

“People who listened to the debate on radio tended to believe that Nixon won the debate. People who watched the debate on television felt that Kennedy won the debate.”

Like many other media-driven myths, the notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate tends to minimize the complexity of a historical event in favor of a simplistic, misleading, yet easily remembered interpretation.

And that is that Nixon lost the debate–and perhaps the 1960 election–because he looked poorly on television, especially so in comparison to the telegenic Kennedy.

The debate myth was expertly dismantled in 1987, in a journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

But still, it lives on.

And it endures despite the paucity of supporting evidence. Seldom is any supporting evidence cited in references to the purported disagreement among viewers and listeners in the debate 50 years ago.

Minow, for example, offered none in his interview on WBEZ.

Nor did Phil Ponce, a prominent Chicago TV journalist who wrote in a blog post yesterday: “People who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy won; those who heard it on the radio gave it to Nixon.”

Nor did the editorial posted the other day at the online site of the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper in western Pennsylvania.

The editorial stated:

“Although Nixon was perceived to have been the debate winner by radio listeners, he didn’t fare as well when filtered through the unblinking, unforgiving eye of the television camera. In their living rooms, viewers saw a wan, jittery candidate with darting eyes and a five o’clock shadow.”

It further stated:

“Given how close the final result was in the 1960 presidential election–Kennedy and Nixon were separated by only [113,000] votes–perhaps Nixon could have ended up with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. if he’d only taken a nap that day, as Kennedy did, and put on some makeup beforehand.”

Of course, the narrow outcome of the 1960 election may be interpreted another way–as evidence that the first debate (there were four in all during the campaign) was insignificant to the Kennedy’s victory.

A Gallup survey showed U.S. voters were effectively split on the eve of that debate: 47 percent favored Nixon, 46 percent favored Kennedy, and 7 percent were undecided.

The Gallup poll immediately after the first debate put Kennedy ahead by three percentage points.

The popular vote for president was, as the editorial noted, razor-thin–which suggests that any advantage Kennedy gained in the first debate dissipated over the course of the campaign.

As the journalism professor James Baughman recently pointed out in an insightful essay about the debate, “relatively few [voters] said they had changed their minds about their Election Day intentions.”

And that was the sense newspaper reporters and columnists detected, if anecdotally, in the immediate aftermath of the first debate: The election dynamic had not much changed.

James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote in a post-debate column:

“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.

“The main thing,” Reston added, “is that the nation gained in a unique and promising experiment.”

But the first iteration of that experiment has become steeped in the intervening 50 years in a blithe, appealing yet terribly misleading media myth.



Encore: Sighting the mythical ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on September 23, 2010 at 5:43 am

Cronkite in Vietnam

Sighting the “Cronkite Moment” is fairly easy game.

After all, few media-driven myths are invoked as routinely or as matter-of-factly as the legendary occasion when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite altered U.S. policy with his downbeat, on-air assessment of the war in Vietnam.

The “Cronkite Moment” stems from a special report that aired February 27, 1968. At the end of the half-hour show, Cronkite intoned that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might eventually offer a way out for American forces.

The myth–which is debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong–lies in the purported reaction to Cronkite’s assessment.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s closing remarks, reached over and snapped off the television set, declaring:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect: Versions vary as to what the president purportedly said.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” was the version invoked the other day in a commentary posted at the Daily Caller online site, in a recent sighting of the myth.

The commentary–which discussed former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent criticism of President Barack Obama–opened by invoking the “Cronkite Moment,” stating:

“‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,’ said President Lyndon B. Johnson at the time of the Communist Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Walter Cronkite was then the CBS News anchor man, often described as ‘the most trusted man in America.’ Just a few weeks after he said that, LBJ withdrew from his party’s nomination contest.”
But as I note in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. Nor was the president at the White House.

He was in Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was joking about Connally’s age, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

It wasn’t the most humorous joke ever told by a president. But Johnson clearly wasn’t throwing his hands up in despair about his failed war policy.

He wasn’t lamenting “If I’ve lost Cronkite….”

There is, moreover, no evidence that Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.

“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment,'” I write in Getting It Wrong, “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president:  Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”

But even if Johnson later heard—or heard about— Cronkite’s assessment, it represented no epiphany for him.

Not long after the program, Johnson gave a rousing, lectern-pounding speech in which he urged a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam. So in the days and even weeks immediately after the Cronkite program, Johnson remained publicly hawkish on the war.

What’s more, Cronkite’s assessment about the U.S. predicament in Vietnam was scarcely original or exceptional in early 1968.

Jack Gould, the New York Times’ television critic, noted in a review of the Cronkite’s program that the anchorman’s assessment “did not contain striking revelations” but served instead “to underscore afresh the limitless difficulties lying ahead and the mounting problems attending United States involvement.”

It’s revealing to note that nearly seven months before the “Cronkite Moment,” the New York Times published on its front page as analysis that said victory in Vietnam “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.” The Times analysis was published in August 1967 beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As for Johnson’s announcing he would not seek reelection, Cronkite’s program was a non-factor in that decision.

Johnson’s announcement came at the end of March 1968, a month after Cronkite’s program–and a couple of weeks after the president’s poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire.

What’s more, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek reelection, that he had privately decided in 1967, or even not sooner, against another campaign for the presidency.

<!–[if !mso]> The power of the “Cronkite moment” resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president:[i] Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date

[i] See, for example, Jeffrey Lord, who wrote at the American Spectator’s online site: “The effect was almost immediate. In the White House, the President of the United States looked grimly at his television and in a remark that would become famous said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.’” Lord, “The Limbaugh-Hannity Administration,” American Spectator (3 February 2009), posted at: http://spectator.org/archives/2009/02/03/the-limbaugh-hannity-administr.

Edward R. Murrow ‘had guts’ in taking on Joe McCarthy? Not really

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on September 22, 2010 at 4:12 pm

How Edward R. Murrow single-handedly ended the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most feared and loathsome political figure of the Cold War era, is the stuff of legend.

It’s one of the best-known, most cherished stories about American journalism, one that lives on as an example of media power at its finest and most effective–as a lesson about what courageous journalists can accomplish, even in the face of imposing odds.

Murrow in 1954

It is also one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

As I write in my new book, Getting It Wrong, Murrow’s televised report on McCarthy on March 9, 1954–the 30-minute program that lies at the heart of the myth–did not have the outcome so often claimed for it.

Notably, I write, “McCarthy’s favorable ratings had begun to slide well before Murrow took to the air” with his report on McCarthy.

Moreover, Murrow’s program on McCarthy was aired months and even years after exposes of the senator and his tactics had been reported by other American journalists.

As Jay Nelson Turk, television critic for the New York Post wrote after Murrow’s program on McCarthy:

“Murrow said nothing, and his cameras showed nothing, that this and some other newspapers have not been saying—and saying more strongly—for three or four years.”

Still, the notion that Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would, or dared, lives on. It was invoked most recently in a commentary published yesterday at the New Jersey Today online site.

It asserted that before Murrow’s report on McCarthy, “Little substantive commentary was coming from the news media. No one with any power was willing to take on the popular McCarthy ….

“However, on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow, the most-respected newsman on television at the time, broke the ice. He attacked McCarthy on his weekly show, See It Now. Murrow interspersed his own comments and clarifications into a damaging series of film clips from McCarthy’s speeches.”

The commentary added:

“Murrow had guts—something lacking in most of today’s television commentators who are more adept at reading teleprompters than tackling issues—and he spoke truth to power.”

Those paragraphs contain no small amount of error and misinterpretation.

For one, McCarthy was never especially “popular” among Americans.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him.

“McCarthy’s favorable rating had slipped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably.”

The sharp drop, of course, preceded Murrow’s program.

More significant is the commentary’s erroneous claim that the news media had offered little substantive commentary about McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

As I note in Getting It Wrong:


“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson wrote critically about McCarthy beginning in February 1950–just days after the senator first claimed that communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

Pearson noted that he had covered the State Department for about twenty years, during which time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

In subsequent columns, Pearson raised questions about McCarthy’s tax troubles, his accepting suspicious campaign contributions, and his taking a $10,000 payment from a U.S. government contractor for a 7,000 word article.

“Pearson’s inquiries embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I write in Getting It Wrong. And in December 1950, McCarthy physically assaulted Pearson in the cloakroom of the fashionable Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. (Accounts vary: McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with an open hand. Pearson said the senator kneed him, twice, in the groin. Then-Senator Richard M. Nixon pulled McCarthy away from Pearson.)

The encounter at the Sulgrave anticipated McCarthy’s vicious verbal attack on Pearson, declaring from the Senate floor that the columnist was the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism” and the “sugar-coated voice of Russia.”

Pearson surely wasn’t the most enviable figure in American journalism. Media critic Jack Shafer in a column at Slate the other day called Pearson “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”


But the historical record is clear that if anyone in the news media “broke the ice” about McCarthy, it was Pearson. In 1950.

He posed critical and persistent challenges to McCarthy’s red-baiting ways when doing so really did take guts.



Kennedy-Nixon debate myth certain to circulate anew

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

With the 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate just days away, it’s a fair bet that a particularly hardy media myth will make frequent appearances in news reports recalling the 1960 encounter.

And that’s the myth of viewer-listener disconnect, which holds that the debate’s television viewers mostly thought Senator John F. Kennedy won the encounter; those who heard the debate only on radio thought Vice President Richard M. Nixon had prevailed.

The debate myth lives on because it suggests that television–and how candidates look on the air–can be decisive in presidential elections. Like many of the media-driven myths debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong, the debate myth also is appealing in that it offers a simplistic explanation for a complex historical event.

The viewer-listener disconnect in the 1960 debate isn’t discussed in Getting It Wrong. But I do admire the surgical dismantling of the myth that David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell presented in 1987 in the Central States Speech Journal.

They found scant support for a viewer-listener disconnect in the debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

In their article, Vancil and Pendell pointed to serious flaws in the anecdotal reports and the limited surveys that suggested disagreement among viewers and listeners in assessing what was the first televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates.

Central to the notion that radio audiences thought Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The survey indicated that by a 2-to-1 margin, radio audiences thought Nixon had prevailed.

But Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey, conducted the day after the debate, included more than 2,100 respondents–of whom only 282 had listened on radio.

Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion about the debate winner,” they wrote.

Further, Vancil and Pendell noted, “the critical characteristics of the 282 listeners surveyed are unknown. …Crucial information, such as the relative numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the sample” was not captured, rendering meaningless any generalizations about the debate’s radio audience.

Vancil and Pendell also wrote that the survey’s finding that an overwhelming number of radio listeners thought Nixon won ran contrary to the tendency of debates to “reinforce pre-debate candidate preferences.” And a Gallup survey showed the electorate nearly split on the eve of the debate: 47 percent favored Nixon, 46 percent favored Kennedy, and 7 percent were undecided.

Kennedy during the debate committed no gaffes or blunders that would have swung radio listeners to Nixon. “The available evidence,” they wrote, “suggests … that Kennedy’s supporters and potential supporters were delighted with his arguments and responses to questions during the debate….”

Indeed, anecdotal evidence gathered immediately afterward–including an informal survey conducted by Associated Press correspondents of 100 people in 10 cities–indicated that the debate changed few minds.

And James Reston, then a leading Washington-based columnist for the New York Times, wrote the day after the debate:

“This TV program did not do any of the dramatic things predicted for it. It did not make or break either candidate.”

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard appearance and sweaty brow contributed greatly to viewer perceptions about the debate.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” Vancil and Pendell 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.”

Not all observers thought Nixon’s performance was especially dismaying. In its post-debate editorial, the Washington Post even said:

“Of the two performances Mr. Nixon’s probably was the smoother.”

It is interesting to show undergraduate students portions of the first 1960 debate, as I sometimes do in journalism history classes. For many students, it’s their initial exposure to the debate’s televised record.

Invariably, some of them say they were surprised that Nixon didn’t look worse, given the received wisdom about his appearance that night.

They’re right: Nixon was fatigued, but he didn’t look awful debating Kennedy in what was the first of four presidential debates that fall.

What stands out, though, is how often during the first debate Nixon said he agreed with Kennedy’s views.

Not necessarily the most effective debate strategy, that.



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