W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Six years on: Identity of Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ revealed

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

It’s been six years since W. Mark Felt,  once a senior FBI official, was revealed to have been “Deep Throat” of the Watergate era, the most famous source in modern American journalism.

Alias 'Deep Throat'

Felt’s “Deep Throat” identity had remained a secret — and was a topic of often-intense speculation — for more than 30 years.

On May 31, 2005, Vanity Fair disclosed that Felt had been the Washington Post’s elusive and enigmatic source as the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1972-73.

The disclosure was made with the consent of Felt — who then was 91 and in declining physical and mental health — and his daughter, Joan.

The Vanity Fair report meant that the Post effectively had been scooped on its own story.

“The identity of Deep Throat is modern journalism’s greatest unsolved mystery,” Vanity Fair crowed in its article lifting Felt’s secret. “It has been said that he may be the most famous anonymous person in U.S. history.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, were central to uncovering the scandal and forcing President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

I point out that speculation “about the identity of the ‘Deep Throat’ source provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

I further note:

“They and the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source became central figures” in what the Philadelphia Inquirer once called “the parlor game that would not die. … With each passing year, as ‘Deep Throat’s’ cloak of anonymity remained securely in place, his perceived role in Watergate gained gravitas.”

“And so,” I write, “… did the roles of Woodward and Bernstein.”

Although Alexander Haig, John Dean, and Henry Kissinger were among the suspects mentioned in the “Deep Throat” guessing game, Felt’s name always placed high on the roster of likely candidates.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” began in earnest in June 1974, with a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, and continued periodically over the next 31 years.

The Journal article appeared soon after publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about Watergate in which they introduced the furtive source they called “Deep Throat.”

The Journal article described Felt as the top suspect.

Felt, though, repeatedly and adamantly denied having been “Deep Throat.” He was quoted as saying in the Journal article in 1974:

“I’m just not that kind of person.”

He told the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1999 that he “would have been more effective” had he indeed been Woodward’s secretive source, adding:

“Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

That’s a revealing point that goes to the heart of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency; nor did the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein.

(Bernstein, by the way, never spoke with Felt during the Watergate scandal; Felt was Woodward’s exclusive source. Bernstein finally met Felt in November 2008, shortly before the former G-man’s death.)

On the day six years ago when Felt was confirmed to have been “Deep Throat,” his family issued a statement calling him “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”

Felt, though, hardly was such a noble character.

In his senior position at the FBI, he had authorized illegal burglaries as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground in the early 1970s.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

Interestingly, his “Deep Throat” alter ego may best be known for a line Felt never spoke: “Follow the money.”

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, Felt never offered such guidance to Woodward. He never advised the reporter to “follow the money.”

The line doesn’t appear in the book All the President’s Men. But it was written into the script of the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Follow the money” was spoken by Hal Holbrook, who delivered a bravado performance as “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such quiet insistence and knowing authority that it sounded for all the world as if it really had been guidance crucial to rolling up Watergate.


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Every good historian a mythbuster

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 27, 2011 at 6:10 am

While researching studies of memorable or decisive years recently, I happened across a Washington Post review of The Year That Changed the World, a book about 1989.

I was impressed by this passage in the review:

The good historian is a mythbuster.”


Couldn’t agree more.

The reviewer, Gerard DeGroot, also wrote:

“The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.”

That’s well said, too. It’s a characterization that offers insight about the rise and diffusion of media-driven myths, 10 of which I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

History often is what we decide to remember. And we tend to remember what’s most accessible, what’s most easy to remember.

Take, for example, the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, the greatest political scandal in American history, a scandal that destroyed a presidency and sent nearly twenty men to jail.

The shorthand, easy-to-grasp version of Watergate is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, aided immeasurably by a stealthy, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat,” brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

That’s also the mediacentric version of Watergate, the version journalists love to recall. It serves to remind them of the potential power of the news media.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, the mediacentric interpretation is misleading and historically inaccurate; it “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office,” I write.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I add, “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 argue, “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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So why do we choose to remember the Woodward-Bernstein-mediacentric interpretation of Watergate? Why has it become the dominant narrative of the scandal? That it is shorn of complexity and easy to grasp is one reason.

A more powerful reason is to be found in the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The book came out in June 1974 as Watergate was approaching its climax, and was a best-seller.

All the President’s Men was an even greater success in its screen adaptation. It was released 35 years ago this spring and surely ranks as the most-viewed movie about Watergate.

To an extent “far greater than the book,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I add, “was to solidify and elevate” the heroic-journalist myth of Woodward and Bernstein, “giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

For contemporary journalists who confront sustained and sweeping upheaval in their field, the mediacentric myth of Watergate is comforting,  reassuring.

Recalling the myth and treating it as authentic serves to buttress the present against the riptide of change.


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Media myths, the ‘comfort food’ of journalism

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

One of my favored characterizations of media-driven myths, those dubious tales about media power that masquerade as factual, is that they’re the “junk food of journalism.”

Not comforting at all

By that I mean they’re tasty and alluring, but not very nutritious, not very healthy.

The “junk food of journalism” is a turn of phrase suggested by an American University graduate student a few years ago. And, crediting him, I included that description in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out almost a year ago.

At a recent Roads Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) program at which I spoke about media myths, a participant offered a variation on “junk food of journalism.”

Media myths, she suggested, also are akin to “comfort food of journalism.”

The comfort food of journalism.

I liked the phrase. Liked it immediately.

Media myths, after all, do tend to offer comfort to journalists, the practitioners of a profession that’s largely unloved.

Tales such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales speak to the potential of journalism to do good, to make a difference.

The tales are indeed much like comfort food.

Seeking reassurance about the relevance of journalism helps explain the myth of superlative reporting that marred the coverage of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in late summer 2005.

The hurricane brought vast flooding to New Orleans, where levees failed.

“In the face of the deepening disaster, federal, state, and city emergency relief efforts proved sluggish, erratic, and stymied, especially in New Orleans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Evidence of government incompetence at all levels was abundant, and became a powerful story. People were suffering in New Orleans, and journalists went after the story vigorously, posing lacerating questions of federal, state, and city authorities: Where was the aid? Why had it not arrived? What was to be done to help the evacuees?”

In the turmoil, traditional news media seemed vital and authoritative. They were “essential again,” as American Journalism Review declared in a cover story both flattering and comforting.

“Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country,” American Journalism Review asserted. “Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.”

It added:

“In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”

Woah: “reunited the people and the reporters”? Talk about comfort food for the press.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, such self-reverential praise was “more than a little misleading.” The post-Katrina comfort-food story was largely wrong.

The reporting about Katrina’s aftermath was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I note, adding:

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

In the days immediately after Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror supposedly unleashed by the hurricane. Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood.

News reports spoke of roving gangs that preyed on tourists and terrorized the occupants of the Superdome. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

The exaggerated coverage not only delayed the arrival of aid to New Orleans; it impugned a battered city and defamed its residents, depicting them, inaccurately, as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.


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WaPo commentary off target on ‘sexual misbehavior of prominent men’

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 23, 2011 at 7:20 am

Packwood: Scuzzy guy

“Until recently,” declared a commentary in yesterday’s Washington Post, “we didn’t have to worry so much about how to talk about the sexual misbehavior of prominent men.”

The Post commentary asserted that “until recently, we didn’t talk much about it at all. But that certainly changed in the late 1990s, when Kenneth Starr broke the sexual sound barrier” with his allegations of sexual indiscretions by President Bill Clinton.

That’s nonsense, a misreading of recent history.

By the time Starr, a special federal prosecutor investigating Clinton’s suspected misdeeds, presented his case against the then-president, the “sexual sound barrier” had long been broken.

If anything, the sexual harassment scandal that ended the political career of Republican Senator Bob Packwood in 1995 was more likely a moment when “sexual misbehavior of prominent men” became a topic of considerable discussion.

Packwood was a scuzzy guy who resigned his Senate seat in 1995 in the face of probable expulsion, following release of the Senate Ethics Committee’s 10,000 page document that described a long history of his sexual misconduct.

The allegations against Packwood, a 26-year member of the Senate,  included no fewer than 18 “unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances,” many of which he described in his electronic diary.

One of Packwood’s victims was 17-years-old when, she said, the senator kissed her against her will.

The bipartisan ethics committee accused Packwood of having “engaged in a pattern of abuse of his position of power and authority as a United States Senator by repeatedly committing sexual misconduct, making at least 18 separate unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances between 1969 and 1990.”

He entered the Senate in 1969.

Most of Packwood’s victims were members of his staff, “or individuals whose livelihoods were dependent upon or connected to the power and authority” wielded by the senator, the ethics committee report said.

The ethics committee, moreover, charged Packwood with having “endeavored to obstruct and impede” the ethics committee investigation by “withholding, altering and destroying relevant evidence, including his diary transcripts and audio taped diary material.”

Packwood’s misconduct, the ethics committee said, brought “discredit and dishonor” upon the Senate.

About two months after Packwood resigned his Senate seat, Clinton began his furtive liaison with Monica Lewinsky, who was 27 years his junior.

In a way, Packwood’s execrable conduct probably helped Clinton sidestep political disaster in the Lewinsky affair.

The Lewinsky affair, while unseemly, was neither abusive nor unbidden, as were many of Packwood’s sordid overtures. Simply put, Clinton’s liaison with Lewinsky, and the lies he told about the affair, did not reach the seedy precedent that Packwood had set.

Lewinsky was a White House intern in late 1995 who, Starr later reported, seemed eager to initiate the liaison.

She performed oral sex with Clinton on November 15, 1995, while he spoke by telephone with a congressman. Clinton and Lewinsky had a second similar encounter two days later, and another on New Year’s Eve 1995.

Their liaison continued periodically until 1997.

When asked during a deposition about his sexual relations with Lewinsky, Clinton lied. The deposition was taken in January 1998, as part of Paula Corbin Jones’ civil lawsuit against the president.

Clinton’s lies under oath led to his impeachment in late 1998 by the House of Representatives and his trial and acquittal in 1999 by the Senate .

Clinton, though, was found in contempt of court by federal judge Susan Webber Wright for  “false, misleading and evasive answers” during the deposition in the Jones suit, answers the judge said “were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”

Clinton was ordered to pay nearly $90,000 to Jones’ lawyers and later agreed to a five-year suspension of his license to practice law.

While undeniably egregious, Clinton’s misconduct did not rise to the level of Packwood’s serial misconduct and repeated sexual harassment. Clinton’s misconduct also fell short of Richard Nixon’s criminality in the Watergate scandal — felonious wrongdoing that set a standard for turning a sitting president from office.


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Area 51 book offers implausible, myth-based tale

In Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds on May 21, 2011 at 6:45 am

I had a chance yesterday to thumb through Area 51, Annie Jacobsen’s provocative new book, which says Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was behind the crash-landing of an alien-like spacecraft in New Mexico in 1947, in a one-off bid to sow panic in America — much like the fright supposedly caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

I found Jacobsen’s speculative claim as absurd and far-fetched as it is implausible.

It’s based on a single, unnamed source, and it draws sustenance from a media-driven myth.

According to Jacobsen, the strange craft contained children who had been “biologically and/or surgically reengineered” to look like space aliens, with large eyes and large heads.  “Stalin sent … the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there,” she writes, adding:

“Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars. Panic would ensue, just like it did after the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.”

Oh, right. Sure.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” when it aired October 30, 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or disturbed by the program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Had the radio program — which starred and was directed by Orson Welles — provoked widespread panic and hysteria, newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. As it was, though, newspapers dropped the overblown story after only a day or two.

Significantly, no deaths, serious injuries, or suicides were associated with Welles’ program. Had panic and hysteria indeed swept the country that night in 1938, many people surely would have been killed and badly injured in the tumult.

The War of the Worlds radio dramatization aired on a Sunday from 8-9 p.m. (Eastern), when most newspaper newsrooms were thinly staffed.

Reporting on the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast posed no small challenge for morning newspapers with tight deadlines.

“Given the constraints of time and staffing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential. This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches.

“They had little choice.”

The AP’s reports about the program essentially were roundups of reactions culled from the agency’s bureaus across the country, I write. Typically, AP roundups emphasized sweep — pithy, anecdotal reports quickly gathered from many places — over depth and searching detail.

The anecdotes about people frightened by the show tended to be sketchy, shallow, small-bore. But their scope contributed to a mistaken sense that radio-inspired fear was widespread that night.

The reliance on superficial wire service roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that the broadcast had created a lot of fright, even mass panic.

Stalin  may well have had intelligence resources to have known that, to have understood that U.S. news reports of mass panic and widespread hysteria following The War of the Worlds broadcast had been exaggerated.

Jacobsen’s far-fetched claim falters on another point: Why would sending bizarre-looking aviators to thinly populated, postwar New Mexico have created panic across the United States?

Rural New Mexico would have been among the least likely places in the country for Stalin to have deployed a mission to stir panic in the United States. Especially since the aviators were not armed with the kind of lethal heat rays that the invading Martians wielded in The War of the Worlds story.


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Recalling how a ‘debunker’s work is never done’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

It’s been a year since Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, posted his review of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. The review offered the telling observation that a “debunker’s work is never done.”

So true.

In the 52 weeks since the review went online, I’ve posted more than 275 essays at Media Myth Alert, nearly all of them calling attention to media-driven myths that have found their way into traditional or online media.

So, no, a debunker’s work is never done.

The top posts over the past 52 weeks, as measured by page views, were these:

Shafer’s review sent traffic to Media Myth Alert, too, as it linked to my post that critically discussed Evan Thomas’ book, The War Lovers.

The review, which appeared beneath the headline “The Master of Debunk,” noted that “the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.”

And repetitive firepower. Debunking media myths will happen no other way.

Even then, some myths are so deeply ingrained — so delicious, beloved, and readily at hand — that they’ll probably never be thoroughly uprooted and forgotten.

The tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century is an excellent example. It’s been around more than 100 years.

And it surely is apocryphal, for a long list of reasons I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

Even so, “furnish the war” lives on — hardy, robust, and apparently only slightly dented for all the debunking broadsides hurled its way. Evan Thomas turned to it in War Lovers. So, more recently, did the Nieman Watchdog blog.

Another especially hardy media myth is the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam supposedly prompted President Lyndon Johnson to declare:

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

Or something along those lines. Versions vary markedly.

That they do vary is among the many indicators the “Cronkite Moment” is media myth. Another, more direct indicator is that Johnson did not see the program when it aired.

The “Cronkite Moment” surely will live on, too, as it represents so well the news media conceit of the effects of telling truth to power, of serving as the indispensable watchdog of government.

Shafer noted the durability of media myths in one of his periodic dismantlings of the “pharm party” phenomenon, which in some form has circulated for 40-some years. (The mythical “pharm party” has it that teens swipe pharmaceuticals from medicine cabinets at home, dump the purloined pills into a bowl at a party, and take turns swallowing handfuls to see what sort of high they’ll reach.)

Shafer wrote early last year:

“I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the ‘pharm party’ meme. Since June 2006, I’ve written five columns … debunking pharm parties, and yet the press keeps on churning out stories that pretend the events are both real and ubiquitous.”

He added:

“Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable.”

The Hearstian vow is easily within the 40-plus-years category. So, too, are the “Cronkite Moment,” the Bay of Pigs suppression myth, and the War of the Worlds panic meme.

Irrepressible myths, all.


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The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post on May 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Wall Street Journal  over the weekend carried an intriguing commentary about the appeal of the apocalyptic, a commentary pegged to predictions of a Christian radio network that Saturday next will mark the end of days.

Terrible, but not apocalyptic

“Why are such apocalyptic prophecies so common in human history? What are their emotional and cognitive underpinnings?” the Journal commentary asked.

“In most doomsday scenarios,” it noted, “destruction is followed by redemption, giving us a sense of both fear and hope. The ostensible ‘end’ is usually seen as a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.”

When posed in a slightly different manner, the question has relevance for journalists: What accounts for the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic that often emerges in the reporting of upheaval and disasters?

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic helps define and animate such coverage. And it helps explain why news reporting of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 and of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was so distorted and exaggerated.

By “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic,” I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that Hurricane Katrina – which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005 – seemed in news reports to have unleashed “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the news media’s apocalyptic-like reporting of mayhem, violence, and anarchy in post-Katrina New Orleans proved true.

The “crack baby” scare, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

The scare was based on the widely reported belief that prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would give rise to a generation of misfits, of children so mentally and physically damaged that they would forever be wards of the state.

Commentators turned to phrases such as “bio-underclass” to characterize the disaster they said lie ahead. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked “bio-underclass” in 1989, declaring in a column in the Washington Post:

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free: “neither prudent nor sensible,” I write.

However, I note, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping.” And biomedical research has found nothing akin to the “bio-underclass” that Krauthammer and others warned about more than 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I argue in Getting It Wrong, because doing so permits “insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research.” They seize upon the would-be apocalyptic instead.


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A ‘follow the money’ hat trick

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

Follow the money,” the line so readily associated with the Washington Post and its Watergate reporting, is freighted with no fewer than three related media myths.

One is that the Post’s stealthy, high-level source known as “Deep Throat” uttered “follow the money” as guidance vital to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

What page is it on?

Two is that “Deep Throat” conferred privately with both Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s  lead reporters on Watergate.

Three is that “follow the money” appears in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about Watergate, All the President’s Men.

All three are untrue.

And all three were incorporated into a blog report posted yesterday at the online site of the Providence Journal, in what was a rare “follow the money” hat trick.

The Providence Journal item described “follow the money” as “the famous admonition from the source ‘Deep Throat’ to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard M. Nixon. It was immortalized in the reporters’ book, and the subsequent movie, ‘All the President’s Men.'”

No, no, and most definitely no.

The Post’s “Deep Throat” source — who was revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly a senior FBI official — never recommended that the Post “follow the money” as a way to get a handle on Watergate.

“Deep Throat,” moreover, conferred only with Woodward, sometimes late at night in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. Felt/”Deep Throat” never met Bernstein until weeks before Felt’s death in 2008.

And, no, “follow the money” certainly does not appear in Woodward and Bernstein’s book, which came out in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was nearing its denouement with Nixon’s resignation.

The famous line was written into the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which came out 35 years ago last month.

Follow the money” was spoken not by Felt but by the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie — Hal Holbrook.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, Holbrook turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, tormented, conflicted “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” lines with such quiet conviction that for all the world they seemed to suggest a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But even if guidance such as “follow the money” had been offered to Woodward (and/or Bernstein), it would have taken them only so far in investigating Watergate. The scandal was, after all, much broader than the misuse of campaign monies.

In the end, Nixon was toppled by his felonious conduct in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

The simplified, mediacentric, follow-the-money  interpretation of Watergate tends to minimize the more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions 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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigative authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate scandal fade into comparative insignificance.


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Pakistan facing its ‘Cronkite Moment’? That ‘Moment’ is a myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 13, 2011 at 5:18 am

'Cronkite Moment' a media myth

This is a twist: The Pakistan military may be facing its “Cronkite Moment” in the fallout from the stunning Navy SEALs’ raid that took down terror leader Osama bin Laden.

That, at least, is what ABC News Radio reported yesterday, noting recent on-air criticism by Kamran Khan, a leading Pakistan television journalist whom it characterized as “typically pro-military.”

Khan said last week of Pakistan:

”We have become the biggest haven of terrorism in the world and we have failed to stop it.”

Khan’s criticism, according to ABC, may represent “the Pakistani military’s ‘Walter Cronkite moment,’ akin to when the United States’ most popular television anchor declared in 1968 that Vietnam was unwinnable — after which Lyndon Johnson said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

As is discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the purported “Cronkite Moment” a prominent and hardy media-driven myth — a dubious tale about the news media masquerading as factual.

ABC’s claim notwithstanding, Cronkite did not declare the Vietnam War “unwinnable.” At the close of a special report televised on February 27, 1968, the CBS News anchorman said the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

And that was a wholly unremarkable and unoriginal observation. The New York Times had for months been using “stalemate” to characterize the war effort.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “a close reading of the transcript of Cronkite’s closing remarks reveals how hedged and cautious they really were. … Cronkite held open the possibility that the U.S. military efforts might still force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table and suggested the U.S. forces be given a few months more to press the fight in Vietnam.”

So, no, Cronkite didn’t declare the war “unwinnable.”

Nor is there any documented evidence that President Lyndon Johnson had a powerful, visceral reaction to Cronkite’s fairly pedestrian commentary.

Johnson, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, did not see the Cronkite special report when it aired.

Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, on the campus of the University of Texas, making light-hearted remarks at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of the anchorman’s support. He wasn’t lamenting the failings of his Vietnam policy.

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

Now, that wasn’t the finest joke ever told by an American president. But it clearly demonstrated that Johnson wasn’t fretting about Cronkite that night.

In the days that followed the purported “Cronkite Moment,” Johnson remained forceful and adamant in public statements about the war effort in Vietnam. He was not despairing.

Indeed, just three days after Cronkite’s special report aired, Johnson took to the podium at a testimonial dinner in Texas and vowed that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis during World War II. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”

Clearly, the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” was no epiphany for Lyndon Johnson.


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Lynch heroics not ‘the Pentagon’s story’; it was WaPo’s

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

Private Lynch: No hero-warrior

The mythical tale that the Pentagon concocted the story about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War probably is just too delicious ever to be thoroughly debunked and forgotten.

The tale about the Pentagon’s purported fabrication turned up today in a syndicated column published by the Modesto Bee.

The column deplored the exaggerated early accounts of the slaying of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. Initial reports offered by the Obama administration inaccurately described bin Laden as having used one of his wives as a shield during the Navy SEALS’ dramatic raid on his lair in Pakistan.

“To their credit,” wrote the columnist, Bob Franken, “Obama administration leaders quickly owned up, which is far better than some of the cover-ups attempted during the Bush years.”

Franken then invoked the Lynch case, writing: “In April 2003, she was captured after being seriously injured in southern Iraq. News media at the time bought the Pentagon’s story that PFC Lynch had been badly wounded and taken prisoner after she had blazed away during a firefight.”

Franken,  formerly a correspondent for CNN, also wrote: “The truth, as she acknowledged after her release, is that her injuries were the result of a Humvee crash that occurred as she and the others in her unit tried to flee.”

For starters, let’s check the date: Lynch was captured March 23, 2003, after Iraqis ambushed elements of Lynch’s unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah. She was rescued by a U.S. special forces team April 1, 2003.

More important, though, the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the hero-warrior tale about Jessica Lynch. It wasn’t “the Pentagon’s story.”

The story was thrust into the public domain exclusively by the Washington Post, which reported on April 3, 2003, that Lynch had fought fiercely in the ambush at Nasariyah, ” firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her….”

Above this dramatic story, the Post ran the headline: “‘She was fighting to the death.'”

The story was utterly false.

Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush; her weapon jammed.

She was neither shot nor stabbed, although the Post reported she had been so wounded. Lynch suffered shattering injuries in the crash of the Humvee, as Franken’s column mentions.

We know from Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline with Susan Schmidt on the original, inaccurate Lynch story, that the Pentagon wasn’t the source for that report.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and declared, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb then was the Post’s defense correspondent, and he and Schmidt reported the Lynch hero-warrior story from Washington, D.C. He also said in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He also dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the Post’s “fighting to the death” report was the upshot of the Pentagon’s clever and cynical manipulation.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” Loeb said. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

Rarely do Loeb’s disclaimers find their way into articles, columns, blog posts, and other media discussions about the Lynch case. It’s far easier — and makes for a far better story — simply to embrace the false narrative about the Pentagon’s duplicity.

The false narrative, after all, conforms tidily and well to the curdled popular view that the Iraq War was a mistake, that it was a conflict waged on dubious grounds.

And yet no one who repeats or promotes the narrative about the Pentagon’s having concocted the story about Lynch ever explains how the Pentagon managed to dupe the Post so thoroughly that it published a bogus story.

I’d love to read a description about how that supposedly was accomplished.


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