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.
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.”
“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.
Recent and related:
- New York Times practices ‘yellow journalism’? How so?
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- ‘Burn our briefs’ call in UK evokes myth of ‘bra burning’
- The elusive ‘defining moment’ in investigative journalism
- On ‘transformational moments’ that journalists see
- New Pulitzer biography: An opportunity missed
- Not off the hook with ‘reportedly’
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- ‘Exquisitely researched and lively’