The tale of the New York Times censoring itself in the runup to the Bay of Pigs invasion 50 years ago supposedly offers timeless lessons about the perils of journalists surrendering to the agenda of government.
That anecdote, I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is “often cited as an object lesson … about what can happen when independent news media give in to power-wielding authorities.”
But as I discuss in detail in Getting It Wrong, neither Kennedy nor anyone in his administration asked or lobbied the Times to kill or tone down that report — which was written by a veteran correspondents named Tad Szulc, ran to more than 1,000 words, and was published April 7, 1961, above the fold on the newspaper’s front page.
Like many consensus narratives and media-driven myths, though, the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression tale is too neat and tidy, too rich and delicious, ever to die away.
A hint of that came yesterday at the online site of CounterPunch, which touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”
“Back in April 1961, the Times deleted from Tad Szulc’s story the time and place of landing of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion because President Kennedy told the Times’ publisher it would not serve U.S. National Security interests. (David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, p. 448).”
It’s neat the passage was cited. But the citation doesn’t render it accurate.
Halberstam‘s Powers That Be, after all, is no authoritative source on the tale of the Times‘ self-censorship. Far from it.
Halberstam’s account claimed that Kennedy called James (“Scotty”) Reston, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, “and tried to get him to kill” the Szulc story.
According to Halberstam, Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately about what the Szulc story would do to his policy” and president warned that the Times would risk having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion a failure.
Heady stuff, but it never happened.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, there is “no evidence that Kennedy spoke with anyone at the Times” on April 6, 1961, the day Szulc’s dispatch was written, edited, and prepared for publication.
“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives that day, I write, adding:
“Kennedy had almost no chance to speak with those executives during the interval from when Szulc’s story arrived at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type.”
That’s because the president spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.
The outing ended around 6:30 p.m., leaving Kennedy only a tiny window of opportunity to call Times executives before the first edition of the newspaper hit the streets.
Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer-winning Times correspondent and editor, offered in his book, Without Fear of Favor the most detailed account of the Times’ deliberations on the Szulc article. And Salisbury was unequivocal:
“The government in April 1961,” he 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 [Times President Orvil] Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or [Managing Editor] Turner Catledge about the story.”
The editing that Szulc’s story received served to improve its accuracy. The reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, as it represented “a prediction and not a fact,” as Reston wrote years later.
(The story Szulc submitted included no reference to “place of landing.”)
The invasion at the Bay of Pigs was launched April 17, 1961, or 10 days after Szulc’s story appeared.
In the interim, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Times “did not abandon the Cuba-invasion story …. Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.”
So Szulc’s article of April 7, 1961, was no one-off effort. And it wasn’t sanitized at the request of the Kennedy administration, either.
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