W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

‘Yellow journalism’ turns 114

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 30, 2011 at 8:21 am

It is a little-recognized, never-celebrated anniversary in American journalism, granted.

Wardman of the Press

But tomorrow marks 114 years since the term “yellow journalism” first appeared in print, in the old New York Press, edited by the austere Ervin Wardman (left).

The phrase “the Yellow Journalism” appeared in a small headline on the editorial page of the Press on January 31, 1897. The phrase also appeared that day in the newspaper’s editorial page gossip column, “On the Tip of the Tongue.”

Yellow journalism” quickly caught on, as a sneer to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of the New York Journal of William Randolph Hearst and the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer. By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

In the decades since then, “yellow journalism” has become a widely popular if nebulous term — derisive shorthand for vaguely denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all kinds, real and imagined.

“It is,” as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “an evocative term that has been diffused internationally, in contexts as diverse as Greece and Nigeria, as Israel and India.”

Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on the phrase “yellow journalism” isn’t clear.

The newspaper’s own, brief discussion of the term’s derivation was unhelpful and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World.

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with decadent  literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, a figure now largely lost to New York newspaper history.

Wardman was tall and stern-looking. He once was described as showing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.” He did little to conceal his contempt for Hearst and Hearst’s journalism.

His disdain was readily apparent in the columns of the Press, of which Wardman became editor in chief in 1896 at the age of 31. (The Press is long defunct; it is not to be confused with the contemporary alternative weekly of the same title.)

Wardman’s Press took to taunting Hearst, Hearst’s mother, and Hearst’s support for Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan in the 1896 presidential election. The New York Journal was virtually alone among New York newspapers in supporting Bryan’s “free silver” candidacy.

The Press disparaged Hearst, then 34, as a mama’s boy, as “Billy” and “little Willie.” It referred to the Journal as “our silverite, or silver-wrong, contemporary.”

The Press also experimented with pithy blasts on the editorial page to denounce “new journalism.”

“The ‘new journalism,’” the Press said in early January 1897 “continues to think up a varied assortment of new lies.”

Later in the month, the Press asked in a single-line editorial comment:

“Why not call it nude journalism?”

It clearly was a play on “new journalism” and meant to suggest the absence of “even the veneer of decency.”

Before long, Wardman and the Press seized upon the phrase “yellow-kid journalism,” which evoked the Hearst-Pulitzer rivalry over a popular cartoon character known as the “Yellow Kid.”

Both the Journal and the World at the time were publishing versions of the kid.

Yellow kid poster (Library of Congress)

At the end of January 1897, the phrase “yellow-kid journalism” was modified  to “the Yellow Journalism,” and the sneer was born.

After landing on that evocative pejorative, Wardman turned to it often, invoking the term in brief editorial comments and asides such as: “The Yellow Journalism is now so overripe that the little insects which light upon it quickly turn yellow, too.”

The diffusion of “yellow journalism” was sealed when the Journal embraced the term in mid-May 1898, during the Spanish-American War. With typical immodesty, the newspaper declared:

“… the sun in heaven is yellow—the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is to American journalism.”


From an essay originally posted at Media Myth Alert January 31, 2010

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

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Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on January 28, 2011 at 11:57 am

'Publish it did'

In an article to be published Sunday, Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, rubs shoulders with a tenacious media myth linked to the newspaper’s reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion nearly 50 years ago.

I devote a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth in my latest, mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The suppression myth has it that the Times, at the request of President John F. Kennedy, suppressed or emasculated its reporting about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, in the 10 days before the ill-fated assault, the Times published several detailed reports on its front page discussing an invasion and exiles’ calls to topple Fidel Castro. And, I note, there is no evidence that Kennedy either asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its pre-invasion reporting.

“The anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship is potent, compelling, instructive, and timeless,” I write in Getting It Wrong . “It also is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.”

Keller, though, repeats the myth in a lengthy article to run in the Times Sunday magazine about his newspaper’s dealings with Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks, which not long ago disclosed the contents of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.

Keller invokes the Bay of Pigs as an example of the newspaper’s having erred “on the side of keeping secrets.”

He writes:

“I’m the first to admit that news organizations, including this one, sometimes get things wrong. We can be overly credulous (as in some of the prewar reporting about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) or overly cynical about official claims and motives. We may err on the side of keeping secrets (President Kennedy reportedly wished, after the fact, that The Times had published what it knew about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, which possibly would have helped avert a bloody debacle) or on the side of exposing them. We make the best judgments we can.”

Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.

The invasion failed, and the anti-Castro exiles were mostly killed or captured. The foreign policy debacle came less than three months into Kennedy’s presidency.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the 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 is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article that lies at the heart of this media myth” (see image, above).

The report was filed from Miami by veteran Timesman Tad Szulc who, I write, “pieced together the outline of CIA-backed plans to attempt to topple Castro with an invasion force of Cuban exiles who had been trained in Guatemala.”

The invasion plans, Szulc found, were an open secret in Miami. “It was,” he was later to say, “the most open operation which you can imagine.”

On April 6, 1961, Szulc filed a dispatch to New York, reporting that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had been trained in a plan to overthrow Castro, that invasion plans were in their final stages, and that the operation had been organized and directed by the CIA.

Szulc’s dispatch report ran more than 1,000 words and, I write in Getting It Wrong, “set off a flurry of intense consultations among senior editors.” Their deliberations revolved around three elements: Szulc’s characterization that the invasion was imminent, the reference to the operation being CIA-directed, and the prominence the report should receive on the Times front page.

In the end, the references to the invasion’s imminence were dropped; it was more prediction than fact, as James Reston, the Times Washington bureau chief at time, pointed out. (The invasion was launched April 17, 1961, 11 days after Szulc filed his dispatch.)

The reference to CIA also was dropped, in favor of the more nebulous terms phrases, “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts. The then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that the decision was based on the reality the government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

As for the report’s prominence, the decision was to publish Szulc’s story on the front page, beneath a single-column headline, instead of a four-column headline. Given that the invasion wasn’t deemed imminent, a four-column headline was difficult to justify.

I write in Getting It Wrong that although “the headline size was modified, Szulc’s report hardly can be said to have been played down. It certainly had not been spiked, diluted, or emasculated. Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made ‘perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.'”

As Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

But most important, as Salisbury pointed out, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold.

“Publish it did.”

As for Kennedy’s remark, that he wished the Times “had run everything on Cuba”: The comment was vague and self-serving, an attempt to deflect blame from his administration’s first-rate foreign policy disaster.

Besides, what was it that the Times supposedly held back? The president didn’t specify.

Nor does Keller.


Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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.[i] Szulc’s report, as Catledge wrote, made “perfectly clear to any intelligent reader that the U.S. government was training an army of Cuban exiles who intended to invade Cuba.” 

[i] Arthur Schlesinger, the historian and Kennedy adviser, claimed that Szulc’s story had been “emasculated” by Times editors. See “Rebuttal Is Made by Schlesinger,” New York Times (14 June 1966): 15.

‘Burn our briefs’ call in UK evokes myth of ‘bra burning’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on January 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

An obscure British back-bencher grabbed attention this week by suggesting it’s time for men to consider “burning their briefs,” to direct attention to what he calls “flagrant discrimination — against men.”

Back-bencher Raab, and wife

The comments by Dominic Raab, a Conservative member of Parliament, stirred inevitable reference to purported “bra burning” by feminist protestors a generation ago.

London’s Daily Telegraph made that connection the other day in paraphrasing Raab as saying British men “should follow the example of feminists who once burned their bras as he critici[z]ed … ‘flagrant discrimination’ against men.”

The Telegraph‘s headline was inspired. It read:

“Burn your Y-fronts for justice.”

Raab raised the “briefs-burning” suggestion wryly, in a commentary posted Monday. He wrote:

“From the cradle to the grave, men are getting a raw deal. Men work longer hours, die earlier, but retire later than women. … One reason women are left ‘holding the baby’ is anti-male discrimination in rights of maternity/paternity leave.”

He also declared:

“Feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.”

And he added:

“Maybe it’s time men started burning their briefs, to put an end once and for all to what Emmeline Pankhurst used to call ‘the double standard of sex morals.’” Pankhurst was a prominent women’s rights advocate in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of especial interest to Media Myth Alert is the allusion that lurks in “burning their briefs” to purported feminist bra-burning of the late 1960s and 1970s.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “bra-burning” is a nuanced myth that can be traced to September 7, 1968, and the women’s liberation protest on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J.

About 100 women gathered there to demonstrate against the Miss America pageant at the Atlantic City convention center.

At the Freedom Trash Can

A centerpiece of their demonstration was the so-called Freedom Trash Can which protesters dropped “instruments of torture” — such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and copies of as Playboy and Cosmopolitan magazines.

The organizers of the protest have long insisted that nothing had been set ablaze at Atlantic City. The lead organizer, Robin Morgan, has asserted:

“There were no bras burned. That’s a media myth.”

Indeed, demonstrative bra-burning was not an element of feminist protests of the 1960s and 1970s; that it was is a hardy media-driven myth.

But as I report in Getting It Wrong, there is evidence that bras were briefly though not flamboyantly set afire during the Miss America protest in 1968.

In researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked article published in the local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City, the day after the protest. The Press account stated, matter-of-factly:

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

Jon Katz, then a young reporter for the Press, also was at the protest that September day. Katz, who write a sidebar article about reactions to the women’s liberation demonstration, said in interviews with me that he recalled that bras and other items had been set afire during the protest.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire. I am quite certain of this,” Katz stated.

He added:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt …. It is my recollection that this burning was planned, and that a number of demonstrators brought bras and other articles of clothing to burn, including, I believe some underwear.”

The contemporaneous newspaper report and the recollections of Katz represent, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend. … There is now evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City. This evidence cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

But at the same time, I write, the accounts “offer no evidence to corroborate” popular imagery of feminists setting fire to their bras in flamboyant spectacle.

Demonstrative bra-burning is a myth — as dubious as thinking that many people will act on the back-bencher’s ironic suggestion that men ought to burn their briefs.


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On the thin contributions of media rabble-rousers

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on January 26, 2011 at 6:39 am

The departure of the bombastic Keith Olbermann from MSNBC’s primetime lineup is no an occasion for mourning.

But it’s to be regretted.

A little.

So suggested Bret Stephens yesterday in hisWall Street Journal column about Olbermann, who abruptly left his “Countdown” show at the end of last week.

Stephens pointed out:

“The ‘Countdown’ host did away with the old-fashioned liberal snigger and replaced it with a full-frontal snarl. Put simply, Mr. Olbermann had a genuine faith in populism, something liberals more often preach than practice.”

Stephens also offered this intriguing observation:

“America does better when its political debates descend, as they so often do on (or between) MSNBC and Fox News, into honest brawls.”

He may be right, although I wish he had elaborated on that point.

The observation about “honest brawls” reminded me of the insults and brickbats that American newspaper editors of the 1890s routinely exchanged in print. These were vigorous, lusty,  often vicious exchanges — and there really was little memorable or lasting about them. Save, perhaps, for an epithet or two.

Like that of “yellow journalism.”

Wardman, father to a sneer

As I discussed in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths Defining the Legacies, the epithet emerged in late January 1897, during the failed campaign of Ervin Wardman, a New York newspaper editor, to drive a stake into the heart of the upstart journalism of William Randolph Hearst and, to a lesser extent, of Joseph Pulitzer.

Yellow journalism” took hold and spread quickly in 1897; it lives on today, as a vague but handy smear especially favored by letter-writers to newspapers.

Trouble is, the sneer “yellow journalism” is so ill-defined and flabby that it has become synonymous with journalistic sins of all kinds — exaggeration, sensationalism, hype, plagiarism, what have you.

And the trouble with media rabble-rousers like Olbermann is that their commentary often lacks wit and nuance, and tends to be superficial. It’s not deft, typically, and it’s unheard of for them to invoke media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I address and debunk 10 prominent media-driven myths in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

On his way out, in announcing his abrupt departure, Olbermann indulged in media myth. He described as “exaggerated” the rescue of Army private Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. Hyped, maybe a bit. But the Lynch rescue, conducted by a U.S. special operations force under combat conditions, was not exaggerated.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Defense Department’s inspector general reported in 2007 that the rescue of Lynch from an Iraqi hospital was “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war.

There was no evidence to suggest that the rescue “was a staged media event” even though it was videotaped, as such missions often are.

Olbermann had on other occasions invoked the media myth surrounding Edward R. Murrow, whom he sought to emulate by borrowing the legendary broadcaster’s sign-off, “Good night, and good luck.”

In November, Olbermann referred to Murrow as “a paragon of straight reporting” while claiming the American press “stood idly by” as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy pursued his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

On March 9, 1954, during a 30-minute CBS television show called See It Now, “Murrow slayed the dragon,” Olbermann declared.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, neither Murrow nor his producer, Fred Friendly, embraced the dragon-slaying interpretation. (Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”)

And it’s quite clear that the American press did not stand “idly by” as the scourge of McCarthyism emerged.

As I point out 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.”

By the time Murrow took on McCarthy in March 1954, Americans weren’t waiting for a white knight to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, they already knew.


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24/7 news cycle no new phenomenon

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on January 25, 2011 at 8:31 am

A recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal about the 24/7 news cycle offered a telling point that the Internet “has made real-time reporting more prevalent, but it certainly didn’t invent it.”

The commentary’s author, Peter Funt, also noted that “the notion that nonstop news coverage is something new, some recent innovation developed as a product of the Internet and utilities such as Twitter, is bogus.”

Bogus, indeed.

The 24/7 news cycle is no phenomenon exclusive to the digital century. It is hardly novel, and it’s tiresome to hear journalists cite the nonstop news cycle as if it were — and as if it were a cause and excuse for error and superficial reporting.

I grow impatient with claims such as this:

“There was a time that the people we watched on T.V. for informative news were trustworthy and generally provided a pretty good snapshot of the days’ activities, breaking in when there truly was ‘breaking news.’ … With the advent of  cable T.V.  and the eventual cable-based ‘News’ networks, and then the Internet, we have become a nation addicted to a 24 hour news cycle.”

Not only does such a claim smack of indulgence in the “golden age” fallacy, it offers no evidence of a national addiction to nonstop news.

Adult Americans on average spent 70 minutes a day, getting the news, according a study last year by the Pew Research Center. While that figure is up from an average of 67 minutes in 2008, it is down from an average of 74 minutes in 1994–before the emergence of social media, and even before the popular advent of the Internet’s World Wide Web.

Pew also reported last year that 17 percent of adult Americans go “newsless” on a typical day. That is, they avoid getting the news despite the variety of options and platforms offered by media technologies.

That a significant percentage of the populates chooses to go newsless is, I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, among the reasons to question whether the news media exert broad influence in American life.

“Large numbers of Americans are beyond media influence,” I note in Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Choosing to go newsless may signal that a segment of the adult population has little trust or faith in the U.S. news media and their content. It’s also an effective response, too, to nonstop news: They ignore it. Turn it off.

In any event, it’s quite clear the 24/7 news cycle goes back decades.

As I’ve noted from time to time at Media Myth Alert, large-city newspapers of the late 19th century were known would produce many “extra” editions to report fresh elements of important, breaking news.

Extras not uncommon in 1898

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal published as many as 40 extra editions a day. On such occasions, deadline pressures had to have been intense.

Wire service journalism long has been acquainted with immediate deadlines. Indeed, beating the competition and being first with the news are priorities that define — and have defined — news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters.

Deadlines arrive every second in the fast-paced wire service world. And so it was, long before the Internet’s emergence.

(As Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the Associated Press, noted in a letter to the Wall Street Journal about Funt’s piece, a book published in 1957 about the old United Press news agency was titled A Deadline Every Minute.)

There are plenty of other examples of news outlets built around speed and immediacy.

CNN launched a headline news channel in 1982. As Funt noted, “All-news radio began in the early 1960s at stations like WAVA in Washington, D.C., and WINS in New York, where it was refined to become the nonstop reporting format that remains popular today.”

I remember listening as a kid to Philadelphia’s KYW news radio in the mid-1960s. KYW’s history says that it was “the second all-news station in the country.”

Then as now, KYW emphasizes news all the time, even though content does become repetitive.

So, no, the 24-hour-a-day news cycle is not new. Speed and time pressures are traditional elements of daily journalism.

They are, as Funt correctly noted, “integral to the very definition of news.”


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Who, or what, brought down Nixon?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Who brought him down?

The easy, but wrong, answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that interpretation has become “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also a prominent media-driven myth–a well-known but dubious or improbable tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

What I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and intricate scandal.

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Britain’s Spectator magazine takes up the Watergate question in an article about fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that has swept up Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sunday News of the World.

To its credit, Spectator sidestepped the heroic-journalist myth in declaring:

“Everyone who remembers the Watergate scandal remembers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting. Brilliant though it was, the Nixon administration was destroyed not by the Washington Post, but by Sam Ervin’s Senate committee, which had the powers parliamentary select committees ought to have to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to talk or go to jail for contempt.”

While commendable in eschewing the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation, the Spectator commentary overstated the importance of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina and took testimony during the spring and summer of 1973.

Rather than destroying Nixon’s presidency, the select committee had the effect of training public attention on the crimes of Watergate and, in the testimony it elicited, offered a way to determine whether Nixon had a guilty role in the scandal.

The select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes, I note in Getting It Wrong, “proved crucial to the scandal’s outcome.”

They constituted Nixon’s “deepest secret,” Stanley Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, has written.

The revelation about their existence set off a year-long effort to force Nixon to turn over the tapes, as they promised to clear or implicate him in the scandal.

Nixon resisted surrendering the tapes until compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in July 1974.

The tapes revealed his guilty role in seeking to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate’s seminal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the offices of the Democratic national committee in Washington.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In the final analysis, then, who or what brought down Richard Nixon?

Certainly not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, either.

The best answer is that rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate “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,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon 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,” making inevitable the early end of his presidency.


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NYTimes flubs the correction

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on January 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

The New York Times today publishes a correction to last week’s “Week in Review” article about sudden “transformational moments” — and flubs the correction.

McCarthy: He testified

The article discussed among other topics the dramatic exchange at a Senate hearing on June 9, 1954, in which lawyer Joseph N. Welch supposedly deflated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

I raised doubts in a recent post at Media Myth Alert about whether the Welch-McCarthy encounter was as “transformational” as the Times suggested.

The correction in the Times today addresses the context of the encounter and states:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

But McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee–a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations) and he was there to testify.

(McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, were focal points of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. At the time, McCarthy was chairman of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. He removed himself from the temporary subcommittee which conducted the Army-McCarthy hearings and which was chaired by Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota. McCarthy, however, was permitted to cross-examine witnesses during the hearings.)

Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s “sense of decency,” the senator was sworn in as a witness.

McCarthy, Cohn at 1954 hearings

According to hearing excerpts published in the Times, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

And he proceeded to discuss at length his views about the Communist Party U.S.A. and its leadership. “The orders flow, of course, from Moscow,” McCarthy declared.

In a front-page article published June 10, 1954, the Times focused on the Welch-McCarthy encounter of the day before, stating in its lead paragraph:

“The Army-McCarthy hearings reached a dramatic high point … in an angry, emotion-packed exchange between Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch, special counsel for the Army.”

The four-column headline over the Times article read:


Interestingly, coverage in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1954, focused on McCarthy’s having taken the witness stand the day before, announcing in bold headlines stripped across the top of a cluttered front page:


The opening paragraphs in the Tribune read:

“Sen. McCarthy [R., Wis.] warned that a Red world would follow communist penetration of the United States government as he took the witness stand … in his battle with the Pentagon.

“The appearance under oath of McCarthy came on the 30th day of the senate inquiry ….

“McCarthy outlined the nature and size of the communist conspiracy in this nation, describing it as a militant organization of 25,000 trained spies and saboteurs.”

Not until the fifth paragraph did the Tribune mention the Welch-McCarthy encounter.

Quite clearly, then, McCarthy was “at the hearings to testify.” And testify he did, in rather typical fashion.

So why does all this matter? So what if the Times flubbed a correction about its reference to a long-ago moment that probably wasn’t  so “transformational”?

After all, as media critic Jack Shafer of slate.com has pointed out:

“Readers should recognize that in journalism as in life, some number of mistakes are unavoidable. And some of those mistakes, while deplorable, don’t matter all that much.”

But injecting fresh error into a correction goes beyond trivial, and may signal trouble in the newspaper’s internal fact-checking procedures.

There is, of course, inherent value in setting the record straight, as the Times recognized in publishing the correction in the first place.

Setting the record straight supposedly helps promote a newspaper’s credibility, too. As I note in Getting It Wrong, my book debunking prominent media-driven myths, “a central objective of newsgathering” is “that of seeking to get it right.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

Flubbing the correction suggests a broader unfamiliarity at the Times with an important period in American history–and hints, too, at a reluctance to consult its electronic database of back issues.


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Indulging in myth on the way out

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on January 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

The insufferable Keith Olbermann bid sudden farewell last night, indulging in media myth as he left his primetime “Countdown” show on MSNBC.

Olbermann, who quit or was pushed out midway through a four-year contract,  said in an on-air valedictory that his program had “established its position as anti-establishment with the stagecraft of Mission Accomplished to the exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq to the death of Pat Tillman to Hurricane Katrina to the nexus of politics and terror to the first special comment.”

The reference to the “exaggerated rescue of Jessica Lynch”  caught the attention of Media Myth Alert, given that Olbermann clearly suggested the mission was needlessly hyped.

That claim is an element of the multidimensional media myth that has come to define the Lynch case, which I examine in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Lynch was a 19-year-old Army private captured after an ambush in Nasiriyah in the first days of the Iraq War in 2003. She was badly injured and lingered near death at an Iraqi hospital, from where she rescued April 1, 2003, in a swift and well-coordinated raid by a U.S. special operations team.

The rescue of Jessica Lynch

Lynch was the first captured American soldier rescued from behind enemy lines since World War II.

In mid-May 2003, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a report claiming the Lynch rescue was “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived,” a shameless bit of stagecraft done for propaganda purposes.

The BBC report interviewed an Iraqi doctor who said the rescue raid “was like a Hollywood film. They cried, ‘go, go, go,’ with guns and blanks without bullets and the sound of explosion.”

The Pentagon dismissed the BBC’s “news management” claims as “void of all facts and absolutely ridiculous.” Experts scoffed at the claim that Special Operations units would conduct a mission with blanks in their weapons, as the BBC had reported.

At the request of three Democratic members of Congress, including then-Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Defense Department inspector general investigated the BBC’s allegations.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Thomas F. Gimble, the acting inspector general, reported to Congress in April 2007 that the BBC’s allegations had not been substantiated, that no evidence had been uncovered to support the notion the rescue “was a staged media event.”

Rather, Gimble said, the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

Gimble said in written testimony that more than 30 witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations rescue team. Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed the BBC or other news organizations, he said.

The inspector general’s report was, I note in Getting It Wrong, “an unequivocal rebuke to the BBC’s account.

“Even so, by the time Gimble testified, four years had passed and the BBC’s version had become an unshakeable, widely accepted element of the Lynch saga,” as suggested in Olbermann’s farewell remarks last night.

The BBC claim that the rescue mission was counterfeit corresponded to a broader view that the Pentagon was up to no good in the Lynch case, that it had planted an erroneous report about her supposed battlefield heroics in order to boost popular support for the war.

The erroneous report appeared in the Washington Post on April 3, 2003, two days after the rescue.

In a front-page account published beneath the headline, “‘She was fighting to the death,'” the Post anonymously cited “U.S. officials” in saying Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers,” and that she had continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition.”

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — untrue. Lynch did not fire her weapon in the ambush. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post had reported.

But as months passed and American public opinion turned against the war, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame receded in favor of the false narrative that the Pentagon had made it all up. The Post itself has been complicit at times in suggesting machinations by the Pentagon.

However, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Pentagon was not the source for the hero-warrior tale. Loeb, one of the reporters who wrote the botched story, said on an NPR program in mid-December 2003 that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said on the Fresh Air show.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” he added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Loeb declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb described them as “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C. , and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

Despite Loeb’s exculpatory remarks, the erroneous view the Pentagon made up the story about Lynch’s derring-do lives on, in large measure because it fits well with the notion the Iraq War was a botched affair. And like many media myths, the false narrative offers a simplistic, easy-to-understand account of an event that was both complex and faraway.


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‘Doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold’?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 21, 2011 at 10:15 am

The latest number of the Nation includes lengthy essay about Elizabeth Hardwick, a writer, critic, intellectual, and co-founder of the New York Review of Books who died in 2007.

At the 'Freedom Trash Can'

The essay caught the attention of Media Myth Alert because of a passage that declared Hardwick “was never a doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold…”

But what is “a doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold,” anyway? The Nation essay doesn’t say.

In fact, there was no such “mold.” Bra-burning was a misnomer, inaccurately though relentlessly attached to feminists and the “women’s liberation” movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

What I call the “nuanced myth” of bra-burning is explored in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the popular notion of demonstrative bra-burnings — that feminists in the late 1960s and 1970s set bras afire in flamboyant public protests — “is fanciful and highly exaggerated.”

Ritual, frequent, flamboyant bra-burnings — there were none in those days.

At most, women’s liberation demonstrators at Atlantic City in early September 1968 (see photo above), briefly set bras and other items afire, an episode that may best be described as “bra-smoldering.”

The Atlantic City protest was the genesis of the media-driven myth of flamboyant bra-burning, though.

The demonstrators, who numbered 100 or so, gathered on the boardwalk to protest the Miss America pageant, which was taking place at the Atlantic City convention center.

They denounced the pageant as a “degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie symbol” that placed “women on a pedestal/auction block to compete for male approval” and promoted a “Madonna Whore image of womanhood.” The demonstrators carried placards bearing such aggressive slogans as:

“Up Against the Wall, Miss America,” “Miss America Sells It,” “Miss America Is a Big Falsie.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that a centerpiece of the protest that day was a burn barrel that the demonstrators called the “Freedom Trash Can.” Into the barrel they consigned “instruments of torture,” such as brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, false eyelashes, copies of magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan.

“In the days before the protest,” I write, “the organizers of the protest had let it be known— or at least had hinted openly — that brassieres and other items would be set afire in the Freedom Trash Can. At least a few news reports in advance of the protest referred to plans for a ‘bra-burning’ at the Atlantic City boardwalk.”

But once in Atlantic City, the protesters supposedly modified their plans, in favor of what their leader, Robin Morgan, termed a “symbolic bra-burning.”

After all, a week before the protest fire had destroyed or damaged fourteen stores in a half-block section of the boardwalk.

“In the years since,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “Morgan and other participants have insisted that bras were not set afire at Atlantic City that day.”

However, in researching Getting It Wrong, I found a long-overlooked article published the day after the 1968 protest in the local Atlantic City newspaper, the Press. The article, written by a veteran reporter named John L. Boucher, stated matter-of-factly:

Boucher, 1949 photo

“As the bras, girdles, falsies, curlers, and copies of popular women’s magazines burned in the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ the demonstration reached the pinnacle of ridicule when the participants paraded a small lamb wearing a gold banner worded ‘Miss America.’”

I note that Boucher’s report “did not elaborate about the fire and the articles burning in the Freedom Trash Can, nor did it suggest the fire was all that important. … Nonetheless, the passage stands as a contemporaneous account that there was fire in the Freedom Trash Can that day.”

Another reporter for the Press of Atlantic City, Jon Katz, also was at the women’s liberation protest that long ago September day. In interviews with me, Katz said he recalled that bras and other items were set afire during the demonstration and burned briefly.

“I quite clearly remember the ‘Freedom Trash Can,’ and also remember some protestors putting their bras into it along with other articles of clothing, and some Pageant brochures, and setting the can on fire. I am quite certain of this,” Katz stated.

He added:

“I recall and remember noting at the time that the fire was small, and quickly was extinguished, and didn’t pose a credible threat to the Boardwalk. I noted this as a reporter in case a fire did erupt …. It is my recollection that this burning was planned, and that a number of demonstrators brought bras and other articles of clothing to burn, including, I believe some underwear.”

So what’s the upshot?

The Boucher article and Katz’s recollections, I write, “offer fresh dimension to the bra-burning legend. … There is now evidence that bras and other items were set afire, if briefly, at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City. This evidence cannot be taken lightly, dismissed or ignored.”

But I also note that the witness accounts “offer no evidence to corroborate a widely held image of angry feminists demonstratively setting fire to their bras and tossing the flaming undergarments into a spectacular bonfire.”

I note in Getting It Wrong, that the epithet bra-burning “has long been an off-hand way of ridiculing feminists and mocking their sometimes-militant efforts to confront gender-based discrimination in the home and the work place. Characterizations such as ‘bra-burning feminists,’ ‘the bra-burning women’s movement,’ ‘loud-mouthed, bra-burning, men-hating feminists,’ and ‘a 1960s bra-burning feminist’ have had currency for years.”

Add now to that dubious roster “doctrinaire feminist in the bra-burning mold.”


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On ‘transformational moments’ that journalists see

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post on January 20, 2011 at 9:04 am

The “turning points” that journalists seem eager to find in dramatic events usually turn out to be mythical–chimeras built on a convenient if faulty and clichéd storyline.

'Turning points' sculpture in Ohio (Marty Gooden)

That’s a central point blogger and political scientist Brendan Nyhan offered the other day in a perceptive commentary dismissing the notion that the shootings this month in Tucson may be seen, sooner or later, as a turning point in American political life.

Nyhan argued that “single events almost never reshape social and political life” and added:

“The turning points of the past seem more clear in large part because the messiness of those events has faded in our memory and we remember the narratives that have been constructed after the fact.”

Well said.

Nyhan’s particular target was the New York Times and two rather superficial commentaries written by Matt Bai in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. The longer and more recent piece was published Sunday in the Times “Week in Review” section. In it, Bai ruminated:

“If the shooting didn’t feel like the turning point in the civic life of the nation that some of us had imagined it might become, then it may be because such turning points aren’t always immediately evident.”

Welch (Library of Congress)

He went on to consider a few supposedly “transformational moments” of the past, such as the televised Senate hearing in 1954, when lawyer Joseph N. Welch upbraided Senator Joseph McCarthy, declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

It was a moment, Bai wrote, that “resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.”

The sweeping claim caught my eye, given that my latest book, Getting It Wrong, addresses and debunks the media myth that broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow put an end to McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt in a 30-minute television program in March 1954.

I don’t discuss the Welch-McCarthy encounter in Getting It Wrong, but barnacles of media myth seem to cling to that tale, too.

Take, for example, the claim that Welch’s famous line — uttered on the 30th day of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings — “resonated throughout” the country.

The hearings centered around the Army’s accusations that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, had sought special treatment for a McCarthy staffer who had been drafted into military service. The hearings were televised live, gavel to gavel, by the fledgling ABC and by the declining DuMont networks.

As Thomas Doherty pointed out in Cold War, Cool Medium, a fine study of television during the McCarthy period,the hearings “were not a saturation television event in the modern sense. The refusal of NBC and CBS [for commercial reasons] to telecast the hearings blacked out whole regions of the country from live coverage.”

He also wrote:

“With cable costs keeping ABC from relaying the hearings to Denver and points west, the coverage on the Pacific Coast was particularly sparse.”

Given such gaps in television’s coverage, it’s hard to see how the sudden and dramatic put down by Welch, a Boston lawyer who was the Army’s lead counsel at the hearings, could have “resonated” across the entire country.

Welch’s comment certainly attracted attention. But briefly.

The New York Times said the rebuke of McCarthy was greeted by a burst of applause in the Senate gallery and that Welch the next day reported having received 1,400 telegrams, most of them supportive.

Even so, a database review of the reporting in the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates the Welch-McCarthy encounter was at the time essentially a one-day story.

The database search for articles, editorials, transcriptions, and letters to the editor that contained “McCarthy,” “Welch,” and “sense of decency” returned 14 items in the period from June 9, 1954, to June 30, 1955.

Ten of the 14 items were published June 10, 1954, a day after Welch rebuked McCarthy.  The remarks were reported that day on the front pages of all five newspapers–the Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.

But none of the 14 items was published after June 25, 1954. In other words, none of the items was published during the time late in 1954 when the Senate voted to censure (“condemn” was the term) McCarthy’s conduct.

What’s more, lengthy excerpts of the hearing record published in the New York Times show that Welch’s “sense of decency” rebuke didn’t stun McCarthy into silence. The senator blundered on, insinuating that Welch had sought to include on his hearing staff a young lawyer with a dubious background.

The Welch-McCarthy encounter assumed “turning point” status in the years after 1954. But in the moment, in June 1954, it was recognized as dramatic but not “transformational.”

Bai’s “Week in Review” piece offered up this dubious point as well:

“A century ago, news traveled slowly enough for Americans to absorb and evaluate it; today’s events are almost instantaneously digested and debated, in a way that makes even the most cataclysmic event feel temporal.”

A century ago, news traveled rapidly by telegraph. It was scarcely  unusual then for large-circulation urban newspapers to publish multiple extra editions to report fresh elements of a major breaking story.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal published as many as 40 extra editions a day. On such occasions, news surely wasn’t traveling slowly.

Indeed, at the end of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for Americans to claim they were living at “a time of rush and hurry.”


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