Few tales in American journalism offer such rich, potent, and timeless lessons as that of the New York Times’ censoring itself in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion 50 years ago this month.
Had the Times reported all it knew about the planned assault on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, had the Times not held back, the ill-fated invasion may well have been called off and the United States would have been spared an acute foreign policy reversal.
Or so the media myth has it.
The New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth — one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — endures as a telling reminder about the hazards that can befall journalists when they yield to the government’s agenda on national security.
Indeed, the Times’ purported spiking has been called the “symbolic journalistic event of the 1960s.”
Only the Times didn’t censor itself.
That article was written by a veteran Times correspondent named Tad Szulc, who reported that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had received military training for a mission to topple Fidel Castro’s regime; the actual number of invaders was about 1,400.
But overstatement was hardly the article’s most controversial or memorable element.
Supposedly, editors at the Times caved in to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and eviscerated Szulc’s article, removing key elements about the invasion plans.
That Kennedy intervened in the Times’ editorial decisionmaking in April 1961 is widely believed, and lives on as a cautionary tale. As the trade publication Editor & Publisher put it a few years ago:
“The Times, of course, famously held off on the story at the request of President John F. Kennedy, who later regretted the decision.”
Even the Times has bought into this erroneous meme.
The newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, wrote in a column a few weeks ago:
“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 taken time to consult a database of issues of his newspaper, he would have found that the Times reported in detail about preparations to infiltrate the CIA-trained exiles into Cuba, in hopes of sparking an uprising that would overthrow Castro.
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 Szulc’s dispatch, which was filed from Miami on April 6, 1961.
The article was published the following day – above the fold on the Times’ front page.
Nor, I write, is there any evidence “that Kennedy or anyone in his administration lobbied or persuaded the Times to hold back or spike that story, as so many accounts have said.”
Indeed, while Szulc’s dispatch was edited in New York on the afternoon of April 6, 1961, Kennedy was playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.
Kennedy returned to the White House around 6:30 that evening, leaving almost no time for the president to have intervened and negotiated with Times editors before the newspaper’s first edition hit the streets around 7 p.m. (In his The Powers That Be, David Halberstam depicted Kennedy as having called Reston to argue “strongly and passionately” against the Times’ publishing Szulc’s story.)
According to the Kennedy presidential library, White House telephone logs reveal that no calls were placed on April 6, 1961, to top Times executives such as President Orvil E. Dryfoos, Managing Editor Turner Catledge, or Washington bureau chief James “Scotty” Reston.
In his Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, Harrison Salisbury offered a detailed account about the handling of Szulc’s dispatch.
“The government in April 1961,” Salisbury wrote, “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. Nor did President Kennedy telephone Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.
The editing was conservative but not unreasonable.
A reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, serving to improve its accuracy. The force of Cuban exiles did not launch the assault until April 17, 1961, 10 days after Szulc’s report appeared. Such an interval hardly suggests “imminence.”
Besides, as Reston pointed out in his memoir, “imminence” is a prediction, not a fact.
References to the CIA’s role in training the Cuban exiles were omitted in favor of the more nebulous terms “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts.” Catledge, the managing editor, said he reasoned that the U.S. government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “more than most people realize, and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”
An entirely defensible if cautious editorial decision.
The prominence given the Szulc report also was modified, from a planned four-column display to a single column. If the invasion was not imminent, then a four-column headline was difficult to justify, Catledge reasoned.
Those decisions were judicious, not unreasonable, and had the effect of improving the accuracy of Szulc’s dispatch.
“Most important,” as Salisbury wrote, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”
The Times-suppression myth, I point out in Getting It Wrong, likely stems from confusion with a separate episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to postpone publication of a report about the Soviets having deployed nuclear-tipped weapons in Cuba.
On that occasion, when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed in the balance, the Times complied, holding off publication 24 hours.
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