W. Joseph Campbell

A fiasco for the press, too: Error, hype marked Bay of Pigs reporting

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 15, 2011 at 3:17 am

The Wall Street Journal told of at least three landings in “a land, air and sea struggle” to topple Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.

Miami Herald headline

The Miami Herald spoke of battles raging “throughout” the island.

The United Press International wire service said invading “revolutionaries … appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.”

Thus, a sampling of some of the erroneous first U.S. news reports about the ill-fated invasion of Cuba, launched 50 years ago this weekend at the Bay of Pigs.

Castro’s military overwhelmed the assault in less than three days; the CIA-trained invasion force of some 1,400 Cuban exiles never gained much more than a bitterly contested beachhead.

The thwarted invasion entrenched Castro’s dictatorship and represented a major foreign policy setback for the United States and the three-month-old administration of President John F. Kennedy.

It was something of a fiasco for the U.S. news media as well.

Raul Castro: Not captured

No correspondents were with the invading forces and Castro’s regime imposed a blackout on U.S. correspondents assigned to Cuba. The first news accounts of the invasion of April 17, 1961, as a result were wildly inaccurate and, in some cases, highly colorful and imaginative.

Those initial reports, while still interesting on their face, offer timeless testimony to the extraordinary difficulties of covering conflict from afar.

They also offer a lesson the U.S. news media seem intent on never remembering: First reports from the battlefield, or from the scene of a disaster, almost reliably will be in error. Cautious reporting and scrutiny of sources are thus always advisable amid uncertain and shifting conditions.

Such lessons tend to remain unlearned, however — as was apparent in the highly exaggerated news reports about violence and mayhem that supposedly swept New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting [about post-Katrina New Orleans] had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

I further note that “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. … Recognition of this tendency may well have helped to temper or curb the exaggerated reports of lawlessness and violence” in Katrina’s wake.

Revisiting the Bay of Pigs coverage also demonstrates how wished-for outcomes can color and distort news coverage.

The Miami Herald, which clearly wanted Castro gone, was eager to report imagined gains by the undermanned exile force, while offering no sources at all in its breathless accounts.

Beneath a banner headline that read, “Invaders Slug Into Interior,” the Herald reported on April 18, 1961, that the anti-Castro rebels “were pushing into the interior of Cuba” after launching assaults “at several key points” on the island.

“It was brother against brother,” the Herald said of the fighting, adding, “A virtual blackout was stretched across Cuba since the first shot of the civil war was fired.”

The newspaper further reported — while citing no sources — that it had “learned that the rebel troops are paying heavily for every mile gained.”

The Herald also attempted to divine the invaders’ strategy, asserting: “Rebels pouring in from Las Villas in the soft underbelly of Cuba were headed towards Central Highway in an apparent attempt to control the strategic road and cut the island in two.”

While somewhat more cautious than the colorful account in the Miami Herald, the Wall Street Journal of April 18, 1961, reported that at “least three widely scattered landings” had “brought an immediate state of emergency and brisk fighting inside Cuba and rapid repercussions around the globe.”

The Journal noted that the “cutoff of telephone and cable communications by the Castro government and conflicting battle reports made the tide of fighting difficult to assess,” but added:

“The invaders seem bent on cutting Cuba in half, then wheeling westward to Havana, about 100 miles from their original beachhead.”

The Journal didn’t hold back from publishing what it acknowledged were unverified reports that anti-Castro forces had captured the Isle of Pines and freed 10,000 political prisoners; had taken Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, and had seized Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“None of these reports were confirmed, however,” the Journal added — as if such a disclaimer were of much value after having offered up what proved to be wild and fanciful rumors.

The Washington Post of April 18, 1961, turned to wire service dispatches in compiling its first account of the invasion. It led with a United Press International report that breathlessly declared:

“Invading Cuban revolutionary troops, landed from the sea and dropped from planes, fought a bloody battle yesterday in the swamps 90 miles southeast of Havana and appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.

“There were reports that segments of the Cuban Navy had revolted.

“The revolutionary front directed by former Castro Premier Jose Miro Cardona in a secret United States headquarters was estimated to have thrown 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans into action in 48 hours on the east and south coasts.”

The Post’s report incorporated an Associated Press dispatch that said “the invaders hit the beaches in four of Cuba’s six provinces.”

Within weeks of the failed invasion, one of the leading journalists in America, James (“Scotty”) Reston of the New York Times, charged in a column that U.S. government officials and the CIA had fed reporters erroneous information about the assault on Cuba.

“When the landings started,” Reston wrote, “American reporters in Miami were told that this was an ‘invasion’ of around 5,000 men — this for the purpose of creating the impression among the Cuban people that they should rise up to support a sizable invasion force.

“When the landing … began to get in trouble, however,” Reston added, “officials here in Washington put out the story — this time to minimize the defeat in the minds of the American people — that there was no ‘invasion’ at all, but merely a landing of some 200-400 men to deliver supplies to anti-Castro guerrillas already in Cuba.

“Both times the press was debased for the Government’s purpose.”

Could be, but journalists amply demonstrated in their reporting that they were inclined to be gullible accomplices — eager at least to embrace wishful scenarios about the invasion. Official disinformation only partly explains the media credulity in reporting the Bay of Pigs.

News outlets bear a far heavier burden for botching the coverage.

WJC

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