W. Joseph Campbell

Of media myths and false lessons abroad: Biden’s Moscow gaffe

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

Biden shows the way (White House photo)

Vice President Joe Biden embraced in Moscow last week one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths — the notion that reporting by the Washington Post brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Unwittingly or otherwise, Biden offered up the Watergate myth as a telling example of the values and virtues of a free press. The vice president said in remarks at Moscow State University:

“Journalists must be able to publish without fear of retribution. In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

As I’ve noted, not even the Post endorses that superficial and misleading reading of Watergate history. (Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, has said for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

The significance of Biden’s mischaracterization of Watergate goes beyond being merely curious; it’s more than just another example of the gaffe-prone vice president slipping up again.

His remarks demonstrated anew that media myths are not just intriguing curiosities of history. They showed how false lessons can worm their way into diplomacy and policymaking.

Biden’s speech represented pointed criticism of — and recommendations for — Russia and its legal and political systems.  Biden offered a laundry list of democratic reforms that autocratic Russia ought to undertake, stating that courts “must be empowered to uphold the rule of law and protect those playing by the rules.

“Non-governmental watchdogs should be applauded as patriots, not traitors. …

“Journalists,” he added, “must be able to publish without fear of retribution.” To buttress his point about a robust free press, he invoked the claim that “the Washington Post … brought down a President for illegal actions.”

Biden offered that anecdote as an example of the benefits of press freedom, which he called “the greatest guarantee of freedom there is….”

Invoking the myth that the Post “brought down” Nixon is to offer an international audience a false lesson about the power of the news media. Invoking the myth is to suggest, wrongly, that that news media can, when circumstances are right, force a sitting president from office.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the sweep and dimension 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.”

Even then, I write, “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, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Considered against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigators and special prosecutors, the Watergate reporting of the Post recedes in significance.

As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s ombudsman wrote in 2005: “Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

I also note in Getting It Wrong that “media-driven myths are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can and do have adverse consequences.”

They tend to offer simplistic and misleading interpretations of important historical events, and they “can blur lines of responsibility and deflect blame away from makers and sponsors of flawed public policy,” I write, citing as a case in point the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth.

Had the New York Times had reported all it knew 50 years ago about the run-up to the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the administration of President John F. Kennedy likely would have scuttled the operation–thus sparing the country a stunning foreign policy reversal.

Or so the media myth has it.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, that interpretation is not only misleading but it diverts responsibility away from Kennedy and his flawed decision to go ahead with the invasion.

The Times, after all, published a number detailed, front-page reports about the anticipated invasion in the days before the ill-fated assault. And there is no evidence that the newspaper censored itself under White House pressure in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

And in the final analysis, I note, ” it was Kennedy, not American journalists, who gave the go-ahead in April 1961, sending a brigade of Cuban exiles to a disastrous rendezvous in the swamps of southwestern Cuba.”

The cause of independent-minded journalism in Russia would have been better served had Biden skipped the myth and urged the Kremlin to pursue serious investigations into unresolved cases of journalists who’ve been killed because of their work.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says 19 journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000.

The country, CPJ says, has a “record of rampant impunity in resolving the killings of journalists.”

WJC

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