W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 19, 2011 at 8:12 am

An Editor & Publisher commentary yesterday referred to the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “golden days” of journalism that “made heroes of reporters.”

Journalism schools, the commentary declared, “filled up with idealistic young men and women hoping to become famous and perhaps bring down a president, or two.

“Didn’t Woodward and Bernstein–or Woodstein as they were famously known –practically force President Nixon to resign?”

Er, no.

Not even remotely.

The investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t force Nixon’s resignation. Nor did journalism school enrollments surge because of the presumed glamor effect of their work, as the column suggested.

Both topics–what I call the heroic-journalist myth and the subsidiary or spinoff myth of Watergate–are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

To “explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist 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.”

Rolling up the Watergate scandal, I note, “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.”

And even then, Nixon probably would have served out his term had it not been 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 in the summer of 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Those disclosures, required by the Supreme Court’s decision, forced Nixon to resign in August 1974.

So against the tableau of special prosecutors, federal judges, congressional panels, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance–even though their work became the stuff of legend, at least as depicted in the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men.

“Ultimately,” as Michael Getler, the then-ombudsman of the Post, accurately noted in 2005, “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The spinoff or subsidiary myth of Watergate has it that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein “were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Journalism supposedly was made sexy by All the President’s Men, and enrollments in journalism schools surged.”

However, there’s at best only anecdotal support for such claims.

Scholarly research has shown that Woodward, Bernstein, and the cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men did not prompt enrollments to climb at journalism and mass communication programs at U.S. college and universities.

One such study, financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation, was conducted by researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf. They reported in 1995 that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

They added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

The E&P commentary, titled “Talking Ethics: Money and Politics,” lamented ethical lapses of contemporary journalists, such as Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, who donate money to political causes and candidates for public office.

The commentary noted that giving money to politicians allows them “one more chance to publicly complain that journalists are all bought and paid for or in somebody’s pocket.”

That’s a fair point.

But in characterizing the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as “golden days,” the commentary overlooked the ethical lapses those reporters committed in their work.

They acknowledged in their book to failed attempts in encouraging federal grand jurors to violate their oaths of secrecy and talk about Watergate testimony. Woodward and Bernstein conceded their efforts were “a seedy venture”–which nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including the then-executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

Bernstein also acknowledged in the book that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records.

Woodward and Bernstein also inaccurately attributed to FBI investigators an account published in the Post in October 1972 that said “at least 50 Nixon operatives” had been set loose “to disrupt and spy on Democratic campaigns.” An internal FBI memorandum disputed Woodward and Bernstein’s claim as “absolutely false.”

So those were “golden days”? I’d say that’s erroneous.


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Have a look: New trailer for ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

Check out the new trailer for 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 say in narrating the trailer, media-driven myths can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism“–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not very nutritious.

The trailer, recently completed by research assistant Jeremiah N. Patterson, reviews the media myths related to the Watergate scandal, the purported Cronkite Moment, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A trailer prepared last year by Mariah Howell shortly before publication of Getting It Wrong remains accessible at YouTube.

Another YouTube video–prepared by Patterson in the fall to mark the anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that supposedly was so realistic that it panicked America–also is accessible online. The video discusses Halloween’s greatest media myth.


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Cronkite’s view on Vietnam ‘changed course of history’ But how?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on January 17, 2011 at 7:16 am

Few media-driven myths are more enticing, delicious, or retold as often as the so-called “Cronkite Moment,” when the views of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly altered American policy in the Vietnam War.

The presumptive “Cronkite Moment“–one of 10 media-driven myths I address and debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong–took place February 27, 1968, when Cronkite declared on air that U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” analysis, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:

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

Or something to that effect. Versions vary markedly.

The words of the anchorman supposedly represented an epiphany for the president.

A slimmed-down version of the “Cronkite Moment” appeared in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, in a commentary about a supposed surfeit of opinion in contemporary America.

“Opinion inflation has invaded every aspect of our lives,” wrote the commentary’s author, Stephen Randall, the deputy editor of Playboy.

“There was a time,” he added, vaguely, “when thoughtful people tried to be balanced. The old-style political columnists were famous for saying nothing.”

Randall further declared:

“Walter Cronkite voiced so few opinions that when he uttered one—about the Vietnam War—it changed the course of history.”

My opinion? Such ruminations are glib, superficial and, in reference to Cronkite, the stuff of media myth.

The author doesn’t explain how Cronkite’s views on Vietnam “changed the course of history” (an exaggerated claim sometimes made about the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward). But Randall’s clearly alluding to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, “serious flaws are associated with the presumptive ‘Cronkite moment.'”

Notable among them is that President Johnson did not see Cronkite’s Vietnam program when it aired.

Johnson at the time wasn’t at the White House and he wasn’t in front of a television set.

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

As Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally’s age.

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


It was hardly the best presidential joke ever told. But it clearly demonstrated that Johnson was not bemoaning the loss of Cronkite’s support.

Indeed, it is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been moved by a program he did not see.

Not only that, but Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was by late February 1968 neither striking nor original.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “stalemate” had been invoked  for months to describe the war in Vietnam.

Notably, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

And that wasn’t the only occasion in 1967 when the Times turned to “stalemate” to characterize the war.

A review of database articles and editorials published in the Times reveals that “stalemate” was invoked not infrequently in the months before the supposedly revealing “Cronkite Moment.”

For example, in a news analysis published July 4, 1967, the Times said of the war effort:

“Many officers believe that despite the commitment of 466,000 United States troops now in South Vietnam … the military situation there has developed into a virtual stalemate.”

And in an editorial published October 29, 1967, the Times said:

“Instead of denying a stalemate in Vietnam, Washington should be boasting that it has imposed a stalemate, for that is the prerequisite–on both sides–to a negotiated settlement. That settlement, if it is to be achieved, will have to be pursued with the same ingenuity and determination that have been applied to fighting the war.”

So Cronkite in his report about Vietnam on February 27, 1968, essentially reiterated an assessment that had been offered several times by the Times.

And embracing the view of the Times “changed the course of history”?


U.S. troops were in Vietnam for five years after the “Cronkite Moment.”


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Finding hints of Hearst in the Tucson aftermath? What a stretch

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 15, 2011 at 11:32 am

Hearst's Evening Journal, April 1898

The deadly shootings in Tucson a week ago touched off intense efforts by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets to link the attacks to views and rhetoric of conservative politicians and activists.

But the smear failed to take hold, given the dearth of evidence tying the suspected shooter to political causes of the right and given the vigor of the pushback against what were outrageous characterizations.

The pushback was not without inaccuracy, however.

The conservative Red State blog the other day likened the media meme of the Tucson shootings to the historically incorrect view that the overheated content of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press brought about the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Red State item asserted that in the Tucson shootings, the mainstream media “smelled opportunity in the proud and honorable tradition of William Randolph Hurst [sic].”

The item further declared:

“Hearst earned well-deserved infamy for his manipulation of the explosion of the USS Maine to enhance the likelihood of a war between The United States and Spain. He wrote inflammatory articles, based on biased and insufficient evidence that implicated the Spanish for having an infernal machine to sink US vessels. The Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. Historians believe that it may not have happened with the rhetorical justifications Heart’s dishonest journalism provided.”

There’s a lot of error and imprecision to unpack in that paragraph. Take the last line first: Few serious historians would argue that Hearst or the content of his newspapers were factors at all in the Spanish-American War.

Indeed, as I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies :

“The yellow press … did not force—it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

No one making the argument that the yellow press fomented the war can demonstrate adequately or persuasively how its content influenced American policymaking during the weeks between the destruction of the Maine and the declaration of war in April 1898.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“If the yellow press did foment the war, researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all.”

When it was discussed by officials of in the administration of President William McKinley, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or disdained at as a complicating factor. But the yellow press neither shaped, drove, nor  crystallized U.S. policy.

Besides, the yellow press wasn’t alone in implicating Spanish authorities for the destruction of the Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. The   warship exploded at anchor, killing 266 officers and sailors.

A U.S. court of naval inquiry found that the warship’s destruction was caused by a mine, set by persons unknown. The court of inquiry rejected the theory that an unnoticed coal bunker fire set off explosions that destroyed the Maine.

The court of inquiry’s most telling piece of evidence: The inward thrust of the warship’s keel. Such damage could only have been caused by an external explosion.

In any case, the warship was sunk in a harbor under control and supervision of Spanish authorities which, to the McKinley administration, was further evidence of an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, where an islandwide rebellion had periodically flared over the previous three years.

Spain’s attempts to crush the rebellion had largely failed, but its harsh policies had precipitated a humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of Cuban non-combattants –old men, women, and children–fell victim to disease and starvation.

The humanitarian crisis, and Spain’s inability to exert control over Cuba, were the proximate causes of the war in 1898. The content of the yellow press, as well as other U.S. newspapers, reflected those realities, but certainly did not cause them.

As historian David Trask has written, Americans in 1898 “went to war convinced that they had embarked upon an entirely selfless mission for humanity.”

But they didn’t go because they were moved to do so by Hearst and his yellow press.

In the end, to indict Hearst and the yellow press for instigating the Spanish-American War, is I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “to misread the evidence and thus do disservice to the broader understanding of a much-misunderstood conflict.”

Much as the post-Tucson media smear has done a disservice to the vigor and legitimacy of political discourse in a democratic society.


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NYTimes practices ‘yellow journalism’? How so?

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Year studies, Yellow Journalism on January 14, 2011 at 8:03 am

The “Best of the Web” roundup yesterday accused the New York Times of practicing “yellow journalism” for suggesting that conservative activists and politicians bore collective responsibility for last weekend’s murderous rampage in Arizona.

Best of the Web,” an online compilation prepared by the Wall Street Journal, assailed the Times for having “seized upon a horrific crime to demonize its political opponents,” for having “instigated” an uproar “with its yellow journalism.”

The Times certainly deserves criticism for hasty and politically charged commentary about the violence in Arizona that killed six people and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords severely wounded.

But to accuse the Times of “yellow journalism“?

Well, that’s absurd.

For starters, the “Best of the Web” item didn’t explain what it meant by “yellow journalism.”

The term is convenient but imprecise; it’s often invoked (though not entirely accurately) as a shorthand for the sensational treatment of the news.

More broadly, as I noted in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “yellow journalism” is an amorphous epithet that has been applied to all sorts of journalistic misconduct. It’s a term favored by letter-writers to newspapers who denounce bias, distortion, and other presumed misdeeds in journalism.

“Yellow journalism” also finds expression in international contexts, often emerging, for example, as a complaint about press performance in India.

Wardman: Coined 'yellow journalism'

This impressively dexterous term emerged in early 1897. That was when a New York newspaper editor named Ervin Wardman coined “yellow journalism” to disparage the flamboyant newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Hearst claimed to practice “new journalism” but came to embrace Wardman’s term. In so doing, Hearst’s flagship New York Journal was typically immodest, likening itself to the sun–“the sun which is to this earth what the Journal is American journalism.”

Yellow journalism” became a recognizable, even bold genre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre in its most developed and intense form was characterized by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

And as I noted in Yellow Journalism, the genre as practiced more than a century ago “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired”—complaints of the sort that often are raised about contemporary American newspapers.

Interestingly, the New York Times established itself as the antithesis of yellow journalism of the late 1890s. It often condemned the excesses of the genre, especially those of Hearst’s Journal.

Under the ownership of Adolph Ochs, who acquired the newspaper in 1896, the Times nominally sought to position itself as a staid, impartial, fact-based model of journalism that eschewed extravagance and flamboyance in presenting the news.

And as I wrote in my 2006 book–a year-study titled The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms–the Times under Ochs lacked the resources of Hearst’s Journal and seldom competed in expensive and far-flung newsgathering ventures. (Hearst spent lavishly to gather the news; in 1897, he paid Richard Harding Davis the contemporary equivalent of $50,000 to report from Cuba for a month on the uprising against Spanish colonial rule.)

The Times instead sought to position itself as the sober, moral counterweight to the Journal, and periodically challenged the wisdom and ethics of that newspaper’s forays into activist journalismsuch as the case of jailbreaking journalism in 1897. That was when a reporter for the Journal organized the escape of a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros.

“Yellow journalism” has a long, varied, but not distinguished pedigree. It is to be sure a handy and supple pejorative.

But when invoked in criticism, definitional vagueness doesn’t cut it. “Yellow journalism” ought to be used with precision.


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Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to the post.

n its most developed and intense form, yellow journalism was characterized by:

· the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.

· a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.

· the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.

· bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page.[i] Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.

· a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters (such as James Creelman, who wrote for the Journal and the World).

· a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced a century ago, yellow journalism certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that were not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers at the turn of the twenty-first century

[i]. See, among many other examples, “Remington and Davis Tell of Spanish Cruelty,” New York Journal (2 February 1897): 1. The front page was almost entirely devoted to a sketch by Frederic Remington to illustrate a dispatch by Richard Harding Davis about a Cuban rebel’s execution by Spanish firing squad.

The ‘anniversary’ of a media myth: ‘I’ll furnish the war’

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 13, 2011 at 7:31 am

Remington, Davis in Cuba for Hearst

Had it occurred, the legendary but unlikely exchange of telegrams between William Randolph Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington–in which Hearst supposedly vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain–would have taken place 114 years ago this weekend.

The uncertainty as to exactly when the purported exchange occurred is one of many signals the tale is apocryphal, a media-driven myth.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst anecdote is “perhaps the hardiest myth in American journalism.”

It lives on in part because it is a pithy and delicious tale. It corresponds well to the image of Hearst the war-monger, the unscrupulous newspaper published who fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

As I point out in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, the Remington-Hearst tale is often retold “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

Moreover, I write:

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

The sole original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences that came out in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to pomposity and exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange. Creelman–who was in Madrid at the time Remington was in Cuba–recounted the anecdote a not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.

Nor did Creelman say exactly when the presumed exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897.

Creelman: Sole source

Remington, an accomplished artist of the American West, went to Cuba in 1897 to draw sketches of scenes of the uprising against Spanish rule. He traveled with Richard Harding Davis, who then was burnishing a reputation as one of American journalism’s leading correspondents.

Hearst recruited Remington and Davis for a month, and the plan was for them to reach a force of Cuban rebels under the command of Máximo Gómez.

But Remington and Davis never reached the rebels. What’s more, they proved to be an oddly matched team. In Matanzas on January 15, 1897, they parted ways. Remington returned to Havana and the next day boarded a steamship bound for New York.

Legend has it that before leaving Havana, Remington sent Hearst a telegram that supposedly said:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst purportedly cabled Remington in reply:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Had it occurred, the exchange would have taken place late on January 15, 1897, or early on January 16, 1897.

Remington disregarded Hearst’s purported instructions to “remain” in Cuba. The artist was one of seven passengers aboard the Seneca when it sailed from Havana on January 16, 1897. The steamer reached New York four days later and soon afterward, Hearst’s New York Journal began publishing Remington’s sketches drawn in Cuba.

“The work was given prominent display,” I note in Getting It Wrong. Headlines in the Journal hailed Remington as a “gifted artist”–hardly the sort of accolade Hearst would have extended to someone in his employ who had brazenly disregarded instructions to remain on the scene.

That’s further reason for doubting that Hearst ever sent a telegram vowing to “furnish the war.”

And yet another reason is that Spanish censors, who controlled all incoming and outgoing cable traffic in Havana, surely would have intercepted Hearst’s inflammatory message, had it been sent. It’s highly improbable that cables such as those attributed to Hearst and Remington would have flowed readily between New York and Havana.

Additionally, the correspondence of Davis gives lie to the anecdote.

Davis wrote frequently to his family, especially to his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis. His letters make clear that  Remington did not leave because they found “everything is quiet” in Cuba.

In fact, Davis wrote on the day he and Remington parted ways:

“There is war here and no mistake.”

His correspondence offered detailed descriptions of what he called the grim process “of extermination and ruin” in Cuba.

More important, Davis’ letters make clear that Remington left for home not on the pretext that “everything is quiet,” but because Davis wanted him to go.

“I am as relieved at getting old Remington to go as though I had won $5000,” Davis wrote to his mother on January 15, 1897. “He was a splendid fellow but a perfect kid and had to be humored and petted all the time.”

Davis added that he “was very glad” Remington left “for he kept me back all the time and I can do twice as much in half the time.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that the Remington-Hearst tale was “Creelman’s singular contribution to American journalism.” The anecdote has proven to have timeless appeal, in part because it promotes what I call “the improbable notion the media are powerful and dangerous forces, so powerful they can even bring on a war.”


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Fact-checking WaPo columnist on the ‘McKinley moment’

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on January 12, 2011 at 7:42 am

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank offered up a glib and flabby column yesterday, arguing that the false charges of incitement raised long ago in the McKinley assassination should serve as a cautionary reminder to the likes of Sarah Palin and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck.

They should experience what Milbank vaguely termed a “McKinley moment.”


He recalled–and not entirely accurately–the efforts in 1901 to link the contents of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers to the fatal shooting of President William McKinley.

I discussed that topic in a post Monday at Media Myth Alert, noting how extreme and wrong-headed attempts to exploit and politicize the weekend’s shooting rampage in Tucson was reminiscent of the smear campaign against Hearst following McKinley’s slaying.

The rampage in Arizona left six people dead, including a federal judge. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded.

Milbank’s column seizes on the shootings in Tuscon as a pretext to condemn the views and rhetoric of Palin and Beck, neither of whom I much care for.

Milbank began his column by declaring:

“If any good can come of the horror in Tucson, it will be that this becomes a McKinley moment for Sarah Palin and her chief spokesman, Glenn Beck.”

A “McKinley moment”? Meaning what? An occasion for self-censorship because of the insinuations and false allegations raised against them in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson–much as false allegations were raised against Hearst following McKinley’s slaying?

Not only is “McKinley moment” an imprecise construct: It suggests that using smears to batter foes into silence is somehow worthy or admirable.

Milbank in his column briefly reviewed the false and improbable charges of incitement leveled against Hearst after McKinley was fatally shot in September 1901 and wrote:

“The outcry against Hearst’s incitement–there were boycotts and a burning in effigy–dashed his presidential ambitions.

“A similar, and long overdue, outcry has followed the Tucson killings.”

“Maybe,” Milbank added, “Beck and Palin will be good enough to show us what a real moment of silence is–by having themselves a nice long one.”

A more fitting and appropriate response from the violence in Tucson would be not to seek to mute the rhetoric of foes, but to condemn the smear, to call attention to the hazards of battering opponents with indirect and groundless allegations of incitement.

Hearst was so battered in 1901.

He, not unlike Palin and Beck, was a brash and controversial figure, easy to dislike.

Hearst’s aggressive, activist-oriented approach to newspapering–his yellow journalism–shook up New York City’s media scene in late 1890s and served as a platform for his political ambitions during the first decade of the 20th century.

But Hearst was no villain, no violence-monger. As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Hearst almost surely never vowed to bring on the Spanish-American War of 1898, although that hardy myth is often invoked and readily believed.

His newspapers were known to publish intemperate commentary, as were rival newspapers at the turn of the 20th century. And ill-advised surely defines the column written in 1900 by Ambrose Bierce, who ruminated about a bullet “speeding here to stretch McKinley on his bier.”

Milbank’s column suggested that Bierce’s commentary was published in the Hearst papers some six months before McKinley was shot.

In fact, it appeared 20 months before the assassination, in a quatrain about the fatal shooting of William Goebel, the governor of Kentucky. Bierce said he meant to call attention to risks of not finding and prosecuting Goebel’s killer.

Milbank’s column, moreover, erred in claiming the uproar that followed McKinley’s assassination “dashed” Hearst’s presidential ambitions.

Not so.

Hearst mounted a serious bid for Democratic nomination for president in 1904. He was by then a congressman, and his presidential bandwagon  gathered some momentum during the first months of that year.

In the end, though, his candidacy was doomed–not by the smears and fabrications raised after the McKinley assassination but by the reluctance of William Jennings Bryan to embrace Hearst’s bid.

Bryan, who lost presidential elections to McKinley in 1896 and 1900, had been expected to endorse Hearst for Democratic nomination in 1904. After all, Hearst had supported Bryan’s ill-fated campaigns for the presidency and had even financially supported Bryan’s travels in Europe following the 1900 election.

When Bryan did not deliver the hoped-for endorsement (thinking, perhaps, he might again emerge as the party’s standard-bearer), Hearst’s candidacy was faded, according to David Nasaw, Hearst’s leading biographer.

“Without Bryan’s endorsement,” Nasaw wrote in his 2000 work, The Chief, “Hearst had no hope of securing the votes [of convention delegates] he needed for the nomination.”

Still, Hearst pursued his bid for the nomination to the Democratic convention in St. Louis in 1904. He lost by a wide margin to Judge Alton B. Parker.

Parker in turn lost the 1904 election in a landslide to Teddy Roosevelt, who as vice president had succeeded McKinley to the presidency.

The “McKinley moment,” as Milbank used the term, seems a misnomer.

More appropriate and accurate would be to call it the “Hearst moment,” given that Hearst was the target, the victim, of distortion and falsehood.

The “Hearst moment” offers a useful and pertinent reminder about the use and effect of the smear.


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Many thanks to Glenn Reynolds
at Instapundit for linking to this post.

Turning to that fake Watergate line, ‘follow the money’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

The irresistible but entirely made-up line from the Watergate scandal–the supposed advice to the Washington Post by the anonymous source “Deep Throat” to “follow the money”–made an appearance the other day in Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The newspaper invoked the passage in a commentary about priorities of Washington’s state legislature which yesterday opened its 2011 session.

During the session, the commentary said,  “important state policy will seem to adhere to Deep Throat’s admonition on Watergate: It will follow the money.”

Follow the money.

It’s a wonderfully evocative and appealing line. But it never figured in the Watergate coverage of the Washington Post–a topic of a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, electronic archives containing issues of the Post show that the phrase “follow the money” never made it into print during the period of the Watergate scandal–June 1, 1972, to October 1, 1974.

Indeed, no Post article or editorial invoked “follow the money” in a Watergate-related context until June 1981–long after Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency, long after the successor who pardoned him, Gerald Ford, had lost reelection. (And the article in June 1981 merely noted the line’s use in a fifth grade play.)

“Follow the money” was, however, spoken in the movie All the President’s Men, by the character who played the anonymous and mysterious source called “Deep Throat.” The film, which dramatized the Watergate reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was based on their non-fiction book by the same title.

The actor Hal Hollbrook played “Deep Throat,” and invoked the phrase rather insistently in All the President’s Men.

In a scene showing a late-night meeting in a parking garage, Holbrook tells the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all. Just follow the money.”

The line’s probable author was William Goldman, the screenwriter of All the President’s Men. He told a New York Times columnist in 2005 that he had invented “follow the money” for the movie.

So why bother with all this? What difference does it make if “follow the money” is a made-up line?

For starters, misattributing “follow the money” bolsters a misleading and simplistic interpretation of the sprawling scandal that was Watergate–a scandal that sent nearly 20 of Nixon’s men to jail.

And that interpretation is what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–that it was the dogged investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

I write in Getting It Wrong that to consider Watergate “through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation,” I add, “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

And those forces included subpoena-wielding agencies and entities such as the FBI, federal grand juries, special Watergate prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

Their contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal are minimized, and even denigrated, in the cinematic treatment of  All the President’s Men, which came out in 1976 and effectively promoted, and solidified, the heroic-journalist myth.

I point out in Getting It Wrong how media myths like the heroic-journalist meme “tend to minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. Edward Murrow no more took down Joseph McCarthy than Walter Cronkite swayed a president’s views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other media myths endure, because in part they are reductive: They offer unambiguous, easily remembered explanations about complex historic events.”

Speaking of reductive: I’ve meant to share this fine observation from the Financial Times commentary over the weekend that called Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate coverage the “defining moment” in investigative reporting. The commentary was topic of a couple of recent posts at Media Myth Alert.

The essay, which was titled “The new power of the press,” noted:

“Any journalist not too full of himself to admit it reali[z]es, sooner or later, that the trade demands a facility for simplification that squeezes the most complex events, trends and characters into a limited form with limited, stereotypical narratives.”

So it is with “follow the money”: To invoke the passage is to reach for simplification, to seek an ostensibly telling phrase that can be applied widely, even to the often-dry business of a state legislature.


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H/T to Kenton Bird for correcting the publication city
of the Spokesman-Review (January 14, 2011).

Blaming assassination on overheated commentary: No new tactic

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, New York Sun, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on January 10, 2011 at 7:56 am

The extreme attempts to politicize the weekend shootings in Arizona were dismaying and wrong-headed, but not without parallel.

Efforts to link the attack on Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to overheated political rhetoric and, more explicitly, to Republican Sarah Palin and the conservative Tea Party movement were evocative of a campaign more than a century ago to blame the assassination of President William McKinley on the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst.

Czolgosz, assassin

McKinley was fatally shot in September 1901 by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, who, according to Hearst’s finest biographer, was unable to read English.

Even so, Hearst’s foes–notably, the New York Sun–sought to tie the assassination to ill-advised comments about McKinley that had appeared in Hearst’s newspapers months earlier.

One especially ill-considered comment helped fuel the allegations: That was a quatrain written by columnist Ambrose Bierce 20 months before McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, while greeting well-wishers in Buffalo.

Bierce’s column of February 4, 1900, closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel. Bierce, prickly and acerbic commentator, wrote:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

As I pointed out in my 2005 work,The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents, “The quatrain attracted little notice or comment until Czolgosz shot the president in 1901.”

Bierce later wrote, ‘The verses, variously garbled but mostly made into an editorial, or a news dispatch with a Washington date-line but usually no date, were published all over the country as evidence of Mr. Hearst’s [supposed] complicity in the crime.”

The Sun led the assault on Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal.

Beneath the headline, “A Menace to Our Civilization,” the Sun on September 12, 1901, accused the Journal of having provoked “an atrocious Anarchistic assault on the President” and declared that yellow journalism had “graduated into a serious and studied propaganda of social revolution.”

Never, the Sun declared, “was an instrument of disorder and sedition used so effectually and none ever had so great opportunities for its malign propaganda.”

Advertisers in the Journal, said the Sun, were “feeding a monster which is using the strength they are giving nutrition to in an effort to strike down the civilization upon which they depend.”

It was of course absurd to claim that Czolgosz’s mind had been poisoned by the contents of the Hearst press. Few other New York City newspapers were inclined to pick up the cudgel, even though not many admired Hearst’s activist-oriented journalism.

And as media scholar Brian Thornton noted in a fine journal article in 2000, “most of the attack against Hearst” in the aftermath of the McKinley shooting was sustained by letters to the editor of the Sun, not by the newspaper’s editorials.

The Sun, it should be noted, had long campaigned against Hearst, having urged in early 1897 a readership boycott of the yellow press, an effort that drew attention but ultimately collapsed.


Still, the uproar in 1901 stunned Hearst. David Nasaw, Hearst’s leading biographer, wrote that perhaps for “the first time in his life, Hearst was forced onto the defensive.”

In response, Hearst renamed the Journal the Journal and American, to assert the newspaper’s patriotism. Eventually, he dropped the “Journal” from the nameplate altogether.

Hearst could take a measure of comfort in the insightful and level-headed commentary of journals such as The Bookman, which dismissed the criticism as preposterous.

“As a matter of fact,” The Bookman said in its December 1901 number, “it cannot be shown that any President ever lost his life because his assassins were influenced by the reading of newspaper denunciation.”

The Bookman also noted:

“Indeed, the most severe attacks on President McKinley’s policy were not attacks for which the so-called ‘yellow journals’ were responsible, but they were attacks uttered by such sincere and high-minded men as Senator [George] Hoar and ex-Secretary [Carl] Schurz–both of them Republicans–and by newspapers of great ability, such as the Evening Post” of New York.

The Bookman added:

“It is unthinkable that a press censorship should ever be established in our country; for in its practical operation it would mean that the opposition would have to abstain from all newspaper criticism of the party in power.”

There are in The Bookman commentary echoes of well-reasoned and insightful commentary written in the aftermath of the rampage in Arizona that left six people (a federal judge among them) dead and Giffords clinging to life.

Notably, media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in a column posted yesterday at slate.com that only “the tiniest handful of people—most of whom are already behind bars, in psychiatric institutions, or on psycho-meds—can be driven to kill by political whispers or shouts.

“Asking us to forever hold our tongues lest we awake their deeper demons,” Shafer wrote, “infantilizes and neuters us and makes politicians no safer.”

He’s absolutely right.

And to seize on political shootings to score political points is as appalling as it is unworthy.


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The elusive ‘defining moment’ in investigative journalism

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

The Financial Times of London has asserted that the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post stands as the “defining moment” in investigative reporting–a claim I challenged yesterday.

Not the Post's doing

The notion that the Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is a hardy meme–and is one of 10 prominent media-driven myths I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

The heroic-journalist trope has been driven principally the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men. The movie’s inescapable message was that the work of reporters brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But even principals at the Post over the years have dismissed the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

So if not Watergate, what then was the “defining moment” in investigative reporting?

And how’s “defining moment” to be defined, anyway? The essay in the Financial Times didn’t say.

I argue that the “defining moment” in investigative reporting would have to be that collection of reports recognized years afterward as a landmark in journalism, for having exposed corruption or misconduct. The reports would have been so significant as to have changed government policy and/or altered practices among journalists.

Not many media investigations have had such profound and lasting effect. As Jack Shafer of slate.com has correctly noted:

“Too many journalists who wave the investigative banner merely act as the conduit for other people’s probing.” That is, they often feed off government-led investigations. Woodward and Bernstein did so, to an extent.

A review of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded for investigative reporting over the past 25 years turns up impressive and intriguing candidates. But most winners of the Pulitzer for investigative journalism are local and decidedly narrow in focus and impact; none of them meets my definition of “defining moment.”

The Post won the 2008 Pulitzer for public service for its outstanding reports about abuses at the Walter Reed Army hospital. The first installment of the Post series described the venerable institution as “a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.”

It was a shameful scandal that led to much soul-searching, some reforms, and a few broken careers in Army medicine. The series projected a faint whiff of controversy, too, because conditions at Walter Reed had been the subject of somewhat similar reporting two years earlier by salon.com.

The Boston Globe in 2003 won the public service Pulitzer for its reports about sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests–a series that seems to have stood up well over time and perhaps qualifies as landmark in investigative reporting.

But is it widely recognized and remembered as such? I don’t think so.

A few media historians have identified the so-called “Arizona Project” in the 1970s as landmark investigative journalism.

The Arizona Project brought together reporters and editors from 23 newspapers, in response to a call by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization to conduct a collaborative inquiry into the bombing death of Don Bolles, an investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic.

The project produced 40 articles about organized crime in Arizona.

David Sloan and Lisa Mullikin Parcell wrote in their book, American Journalism: History, Principles, Practices that the Arizona Project “was a defining moment in the history of investigative reporting–a rare instance when normally competitive journalists set aside their egos, stepped outside their news organizations, and cooperated on a dramatic and startling story.”

But in all, the Arizona Project produced mixed results.

It didn’t lead to a succession of similar joint ventures by journalists. Prominent news organizations such as the Post and the New York Times declined to participate. And critics said the undertaking smacked of a kind of arrogant vigilantism by journalists.

The Financial Times in its essay published Friday mentioned in addition to the Watergate reporting by the Post a few other works of outstanding investigative journalism.

It said the journalistic “exposures such as The Sunday Times on the effects of Thalidomide in the 1970s, The Guardian on bribery scandals in British Aerospace in 2003 and The New Yorker’s revelations about abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004″ have prominent places on “a long roll of honor” in investigative journalism.

Intriguing cases, all. But are they recognized as landmarks? Maybe.

Tarbell (Library of Congress)

How about the muckraking period early in the 20th century–notably Ida Tarbell’s two-year exposé of Standard Oil, published in McClure’s magazine from 1904 to 1906? That work certainly is recognized as memorable, as a landmark, even.

But its effects tend to have been overstated. Tarbell’s work, detailed and searching though it was, did not bring about the breakup of Standard Oil, as is often claimed.

The breakup came years after Tarbell’s series, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil had violated antitrust laws.

In the end, we have a few candidates but no overwhelming favorite for the “defining moment” in investigative journalism. And perhaps that’s not so surprising.

Like most works of journalism, investigative reporting tends to be time-specific and of transient importance–and short-lived in its effects.


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