W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

List of flubs by pols incomplete without Biden’s Watergate gaffe

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

The gaffe-prone vice president, Joe Biden, claimed in a speech aboard a few months ago that the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.


That’s a media myth — a misreading of history that not even the Post embraces.

While Biden’s blunder didn’t receive much media attention at the time, the flub merited inclusion in Time magazine’s lineup of memorable mischaracterizations of American history offered by leading U.S. politicians.

In a posting yesterday, the magazine’s “Swampland” politics blog offered what it termed were nine “epically wrong politician accounts of yesteryear.”

The “Swampland” lineup included two flubs by Michele Bachmann, the Republican congresswoman running for president — that the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in New Hampshire and that John Quincy Adams was among America’s founding fathers.

Biden made the “Swampland” lineup for his laughable statement that President Franklin D. Roosevelt went on television and spoke to Americans after the stock market crash of 1929. Roosevelt didn’t become president until 1933 and television wasn’t pervasive in American households until the 1950s.

While perhaps not as delicious as the FDR-market crash gaffe, Biden’s ahistoric flub about the Post and Watergate would have rounded out the “Swampland” list at 10.

Its inclusion would’ve underscored how unraveling a scandal as complex as Watergate required far more investigative clout than any news organization could muster.

Although it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, the Post’s Watergate-related reporting was scarcely enough to turn a sitting president from office. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Biden’s mischaracterization of Watergate was astonishing and the “Swampland” list is incomplete without mentioning the blunder. The vice president told an audience in Moscow in March:

“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.”

It didn’t.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong,to argue that the Post and the dogged reporting of its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down Nixon “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

I note that 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.”

And 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.

So against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of the Post in Watergate fade in significance.

Those contributions were not decisive, as top officials at the Post have noted over the years.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate years, said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Ben Bradlee,who was the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

And Woodward himself has disputed the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, declaring in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”


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Newspapers vital to democracy? Where’s the proof?

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on June 28, 2011 at 11:19 am

It’s a truism — a media myth, even — that independent-minded newspapers are “a vital bulwark” to democracy. It’s a claim easily made but supported by little persuasive evidence.


Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the latest commentator to invoke the “vital bulwark” conceit, offering it up in a lengthy essay posted yesterday at Truthdig.com.

Hedges’ is an angst-ridden ode to newspapering. He writes: “The day The New York Times and other great city newspapers die, if such a day comes, will be a black day for the nation.”

Why is that?

Hedges claims that a “democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial sources of information, when it can discern lies from truth, when civic discourse is grounded in verifiable fact.”

But in saying so, Hedges offers more assertion than evidence.

Media pluralism is a marker of democratic governance, not its essential precondition.

The countries that New York-based Freedom House ranks highest in measures of press freedom are functioning democracies.

Democratic rule enables media pluralism, not the other way round.

What’s more, the American experience with even nominally impartial news media has been relatively brief. Democratic governance emerged, evolved, and became consolidated in America despite the absence of “trustworthy and impartial sources of information” that Hedges extols.

American media history has been defined mostly by a vigorously partisan press.

And of course, unabashedly partisan newspapers still characterize the media landscape of such well-established democracies as Britain.

The ethos of detached impartiality news coverage began to emerge in the United States in the late 19th century, as I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism. But that approach to newsgathering took years to develop, years to become the normative standard in American journalism.

Detached impartiality is taught nowadays in journalism schools. It is the dominant professional paradigm. But that doesn’t mean it’s rigorously respected or routinely practiced.

Nor is much of the content of American newspapers necessarily vital to the functioning of a democracy. As Jack Shafer pointed out in a memorable commentary a couple of years ago:

“Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. Car bomb in Pakistan? Drug war in Mexico? Flood in North Dakota? Murder in the suburbs? Great places to get Thai food after midnight? A review of the Britney Spears concert? New ideas on how to serve leftover turkey? The sports scores? The stock report? Few of these stories are likely to supercharge the democratic impulse.”

A little-studied phenomenon of American democratic life is that of going newsless, of choosing to avoid the news, impartial or not.

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center and released last year, 17 percent of adult Americans  receive no news on a typical day. They eschew the news despite ready access to a variety of news-delivery platforms, both traditional and digital.

More than 25 percent of American of adults younger than 30 say they go newsless, according to Pew. In the 18-to-24 age cohort, 31 percent say they go without the news.

And yet American democracy functions, if not flourishes, in its messy, often-frustrating ways.

No doubt some slice of “newsless” population is turned off by perceived distortion in the content offered by the nominally impartial, even-handed news media.

Just 20 percent of respondents in the Pew study said they believed all or most of what they read in the New York Times; 25 percent said they believed all or most of what they read in the Wall Street Journal.

That figure for “your daily newspaper” was 21 percent, Pew reported.

So even if they nominally strive for even-handedness and impartiality, leading U.S. newspapers face steep believability problems.

Hedges, it’s interesting to recall, is no model of the impartial journalist.

He notes in his essay that he left the Times because of his “vocal and public opposition to the war in Iraq,” saying he “cared more about truth than news.”


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WaPo’s latest ‘missed’ opportunity evokes Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Washington Post on June 26, 2011 at 9:11 am

Patrick Pexton has been hesitant and a bit baffling in three-plus months as the Washington Post’s ombudsman.

His choice of topics — he recently discussed the Post’s coverage of women’s sports — suggests he’s no Michael Getler, who set a rather hard-nosed standard in five years as ombudsman, and no Deborah Howell, who poked at the ideological lopsidedness of the Post’s newsroom.

But Pexton gets moderately tough in his column published today, criticizing the Post for fumbling the case of Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant who was a Post reporter for several years and kept his status mostly a secret.

A Post editor, Patrick Perl, knew that Vargas was an undocumented immigrant but kept quiet about it.

Vargas recently submitted to the Post a lengthy, first-person essay about his status and time as a reporter there. For reasons not entirely clear, the newspaper in mid-June abruptly spiked the piece.

So Vargas took his account to the New York Times, which published it in today’s magazine.

In his column about the Vargas case, Pexton asks:

“Why would The Post punt to a rival a riveting, already edited story that could provoke national discussion on immigration — an issue that sorely needs it — and that also included possibly illegal, and perhaps forgivable, conduct by a former Post reporter and current member of management?

“Beats the heck out of many in The Post’s newsroom,” Pexton adds, “and beats the heck out of me.”

He adds that in the Vargas matter, the Post “missed an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story, and to air and take responsibility for some internal dirty laundry. It’s that kind of act that earns you the lasting respect of your readers. It keeps their trust.”

It’s a ringing line with which to close a column.

It’s also an observation that evokes another messy case the Post has never thoroughly addressed: It never has come clean about its bogus hero-warrior story about Jessica Lynch, a story that became an international sensation in the early days of the Iraq War.

Lynch was a shy 19-year-old private, a supply clerk in the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company. Elements of her unit were caught in a deadly ambush in southern Iraq in March 2003.

The Post reported that Lynch fought fiercely in the attack, “even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” before being taken prisoner. She also was stabbed in the attack, the Post reported, but fought the Iraqis until she ran out of ammunition.

The Post quoted an otherwise anonymous “U.S. official” as saying: “She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Private Lynch

But in fact Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush.

Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed.

She suffered shattering injuries was badly injured in the crash of a Humvee fleeing the attack.

Lynch was treated at an Iraqi hospital from where she was rescued by a U.S. commando team on April 1, 2003. The Post’s bogus hero-warrior story came out two days later.

In the years since, the newspaper has never fully explained how it got the hero-warrior story so utterly wrong; nor has it dealt adequately with fallout from the Lynch case.

As I note in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post had the temerity, in a follow-up article published in June 2003, to blame the U.S. military and the administration of President George Bush for failing to correct an error for which the Post, alone, was responsible.

“Neither the Pentagon nor the White House publicly dispelled the more romanticized initial version of her capture,” the Post said in the follow-up article — as if the “romanticized initial version” wasn’t the Post’s, alone.

So why still fuss about the Post and its botched the story about Lynch?

For at least two compelling and somewhat related reasons.

One is the false narrative that has come to define the Lynch case — a narrative that says the Pentagon planted the bogus hero-warrior tale in order to bolster support for the war at home.

That narrative endures even though Vernon Loeb, one of the reporters on the original Lynch story, has said the Pentagon wasn’t the source for the hero-warrior tale.

“I could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about those reports [of Lynch’s battlefield derring-do] at all,” Loeb said on an NPR program in late 2003, adding:

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

The other reason it still matters is that a former White House operative named Jim Wilkinson was fingered as the Post’s source in Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, a book by Jon Krakauer.

In the book, Krakauer referred to Wilkinson as a “master propagandist” and said he “deserves top billing for creating the myth of Jessica Lynch.”

But the book offered no specific source for its claims about Wilkinson, who at the time of Lynch’s capture and rescue was director of strategic communications for General Tommy Franks, then the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

I spoke with Wilkinson last year and he disputed Krakauer’s account as “factually incorrect” and insisted that “not one shred of evidence” links him to leaking the erroneous report to the Post.

Wilkinson also said:

“Tommy Franks would have killed me” had he been the Post’s source for the erroneous report about Lynch.

Wilkinson’s denial has a ring of validity, particularly his point about Franks.

The Post could swiftly resolve this lingering messiness by identifying the anonymous sources who led it astray on the Lynch story. The newspaper should feel no obligation to sources who caused it to err so badly.

Identifying those sources would reveal whether indeed the Pentagon planted the hero-warrior tale, and would clarify Wilkinson’s role, if any, in the Lynch case. And it would, as Pexton might say, represent “an opportunity to tell a great and compelling story” that would earn the respect of readers.


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Those delicious but phony quotes ‘that refuse to die’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 25, 2011 at 10:31 am

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, posted an intriguing column yesterday about appealing but dubious quotations that journalists seem especially prone to cite, noting that such famous lines “often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations.”

It’s an important reminder, given the endless popularity of quotations that are neat, tidy, and irresistibly delicious. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

Plouffe: Not so 'queasy'?

Silverman’s column, titled “Misquotes that refuse to die,” was centered around a comment attributed in 2009 to David Plouffe, Barrack Obama’s campaign manager in 2008.

Plouffe supposedly said he felt a bit “queasy” about the prospect of Obama’s facing Jon Huntsman, the Republican former Utah governor, in the presidential election in 2012.

“Plouffe never said it,” Silverman wrote, describing how the queasy line took on life of its own.

Journalists can be particularly susceptible to such succinct “little gems,” as Silverman put it, because the gems are so effective in making a point or in distilling complexity.

Silverman’s column noted two famous, dubious quotes that I dismantle in Getting It Wrong.

One of them is the comment misattributed to President Lyndon Johnson who,  in reaction to Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the war in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate,” supposedly said:

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

Or something to that effect.

Versions as to what Johnson supposedly said vary quite a lot — which can be a marker of a media myth. I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968.

The other dubious quote discussed in Getting It Wrong and mentioned by Silverman is William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Reasons for doubting the Hearstian vow are many, I write, and include the fact that the telegram in which Hearst supposedly made the statement has never turned up. Plus, Hearst denied making such a vow.

A number of other famous and delicious quotes favored by journalists likewise have proven to be false, made-up, or of mythical dimension; among them:

  • Too early to say.” It’s often said that Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered the observation in 1972, as sage, far-sighted analysis about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. But according to a retired American diplomat, Charles W.  (Chas) Freeman Jr., Zhou’s comment, which came during President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, was about political turmoil in France in 1968. “I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history, Freeman said recently. Freeman was Nixon’s interpreter on the trip.

So what to do about these delicious but dubious and phony quotations?

Keep pounding away at them, calling them out for what they are, whenever they appear. That’s the only effective way of debunking.

But even then, thorough and utter debunking can be rare.


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‘Getting It Wrong’ at ‘Reader’s Corner’ tonight

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

I’ll be discussing my latest book, Getting It Wrong, in a half-hour interview that airs tonight at 7:30 (Eastern) on “Reader’s Corner,” a program of Boise State University public radio, KBSX 91.5 FM.

The host is the university’s president, Bob Kustra, an engaging interviewer who taped the show with me last week.

We discussed a number of the media-driven myths debunked in Getting It Wrong, including, in some detail, the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly swung U.S. policy in Vietnam with his on-air assessment that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were a prospective way out of Southeast Asia.

The assessment, I write in Getting It Wrong, “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides:

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

Or words to that effect. Versions vary. Markedly.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House, either.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of the president’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was saying this, about Connally’s age:

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

It’s difficult to imagine how Johnson was much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Even if the president did watch the Cronkite report at some later date on videotape — and there’s no evidence he did — it’s clear that Johnson did not take the anchorman’s assessment to heart. “Mired in stalemate” was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, just three days after the Cronkite program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas 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 take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”

I noted in the interview with Kustra, that Cronkite until late in his life pooh-poohed the notion his assessment about Vietnam represented a pivotal moment.

In his memoir published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that his “mired in stalemate” assessment posed for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

But by 2006, three years before his death, Cronkite had come to embrace the conventional interpretation of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Among other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency) and the woefully exaggerated reporting that characterized coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.

I also noted during the interview that Getting It Wrong is best regarded as aligned with the fundamental imperative of newsgathering — that of getting it right, of seeking to obtain the most accurate version of events as possible.


Appearance decisive in politics? Revisiting the Kennedy-Nixon debate

In Debunking, Media myths on June 23, 2011 at 4:04 am

First presidential debate, 1960

The power of the image in presidential politics was never better demonstrated than in September 1960.

That was when John F. Kennedy supposedly won the first-ever televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates because he appeared so poised, rested, and telegenic compared to his sweaty, haggard-looking rival, Richard M. Nixon.

Most television viewers thought so, supposedly.

But people who listened to the debate on radio had a distinctly different impression: They thought Nixon won the encounter.

So goes one of the most delicious, enduring, and often-repeated myths about the American media and politics, which was served up yesterday in a commentary posted online yesterday by Canadian-based Troy Media.

The commentary declared:

“The major story of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 became the photogenic appeal of John F. Kennedy versus the sickly look of his opponent, Richard Nixon. … Radio listeners, who heard the debate but hadn’t seen it, gave the victory to Nixon. But a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement — that television viewers and radio listeners had starkly different impressions of the inaugural presidential debate — was destroyed (or ought to have been) in research published in 1987 by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement were thin, flawed, and anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative to allow for confident assessments.

Vancil and Pendell concluded:

“The relationship of substance and appearance is complex, and the effects of electronic media on political communication surely deserve attention. However, there is little merit in speculation based upon unsupported anecdotes of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

Vancil and Pendell’s research also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard look much contributed to views about the debate.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” they wrote, “but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”

They added: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.”

It’s revealing to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary deemed the encounter a draw.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote shortly after the debate: “Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”

But the Washington Post saw it another way, stating in a post-debate editorial:

“Of the two performances, Mr. Nixon’s was probably the smoother. He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

Right after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported that most respondents said they weren’t influenced by the exchanges.

“Only a few persons,” the AP reported, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”

And it was hardly the case that “a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner” of the debate, as the Troy Media commentary claimed.

A Gallup poll conducted during the week after the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate; 23 percent thought Nixon was better, and 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

The survey, moreover, detected no marked shift of support to Kennedy, post-debate. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

“The prudent reader can see,” George Gallup, head of the polling organization, stated in reporting those results, “that polling accuracy has not reached the degree of accuracy required to say with certainty which candidate is ahead in a close race such as the present one.”


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Wrong-headed history: Yellow press stampeded U.S. to war

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

Glib but thinly substantiated.

Hearst: War-monger?

That characterizes the not-infrequent claims about William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and the war-mongering ways of their yellow newspapers. The claims are readily offered but rarely documented.

Take, for example, an essay published yesterday at Huffington Post which addressed the farcical campaign of the satiric newspaper, the Onion, to seek a Pulitzer Prize.

The HuffPo essay was headlined, “Why not give The Onion a Pulitzer?” and offered this dollop of wrong-headed history:

“Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used their newspapers to stampede the country into the Spanish-American War. A century later, the publications most often honored by Pulitzer Prizes went along for the ride of our Iraqi adventure in the same fashion — which makes the point that today’s regular Pulitzer honorees haven’t come very far from the journalism practiced in Pulitzer’s day.”

The latter claim — “today’s regular Pulitzer honorees haven’t come very far” — is risible. The preceding claim about the yellow press and a “stampede” to war with Spain is utterly false.

As I discussed in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced — the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. ”

In 1898, Pulitzer and Hearst published six newspapers between them. Pulitzer’s were the World and the Evening World in New York, and the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis. Hearst’s were the Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Those half-dozen titles wielded no more than modest agenda-setting influence on the rest of the American press, which then numbered more than 2,200 daily newspapers.

As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism:

“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” the American battleship that blew up in Havana harbor in February 1898, killing 266 officers and sailors.

The destruction of the Maine was a triggering event of the war with Spain for the future of Cuba. But it was not the sole factor, or even necessarily the decisive factor.

Effects of 'reconcentration'

What more than anything led America to war in 1898 were Spain’s brutal efforts to suppress the rebellion on Cuba, a vicious conflict that began in February 1895.

Spain sought to crush the rebellion by forcing Cuban non-combattants – old men, women, and children– into were called “reconcentration centers,” to prevent the non-combattants from giving aid, succor, and supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy was a disaster. Tens of thousands of Cubans fell victim to disease and starvation. U.S. newspapers — including but certainly not limited to the dailies of Pulitzer and Hearst — were aware of, and reported extensively about, the humanitarian crisis that had taken hold on Cuba by early 1898.

That crisis — and not the often-flamboyant contents of the yellow press — was what precipitated the conflict with Spain.

As the historian David Trask has written, Americans in 1898 “went to war convinced that they had embarked upon an entirely selfless mission for humanity,” to end Spain’s brutal rule of Cuba.

It’s important to note that the fierce Pulitzer-Hearst competition for readers in New York undercut whatever power their respective newspapers may have wielded in shaping U.S. public opinion and U.S. policy toward Spain.

As I noted in Yellow Journalism, the newspapers of Pulitzer and Hearst “were not in lockstep but sought instead to denigrate, undercut, or minimize the other’s coverage during the months before and after the United States declared war on Spain.”

The broader effect of the Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry, I noted, “likely was to diminish the integrity and, in turn, the credibility and  presumed influence” of their newspapers, further weakening their agenda-setting capacity.


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NYT’s Keller and the dearth of viewpoint diversity in newsrooms

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times on June 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I enjoy Bill Keller‘s column in the New York Times Sunday magazine, not so much for strength of argument and depth of reporting as for its tendency to offer grist to Media Myth Alert.

Keller of the Times

Keller’s assertion a few months ago that the Times corrects errors of fact when it detects them prompted me to point out that the Times hadn’t corrected an erroneous reference in January to the Army-McCarthy hearings.

And I’m still waiting for that correction.

In his most recent column, Keller poked at Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who’s flirting with the notion of making a run for president. Ill-fated that would be.

But Keller’s column — especially its opening observation — revealed more about the dearth of intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking in American journalism than it did about the limited appeal of Sarah Palin.

Keller, the Times executive editor, wrote blithely:

“If the 2012 election were held in the newsrooms of America and pitted Sarah Palin against Barack Obama, I doubt Palin would get 10 percent of the vote. However tempting the newsworthy havoc of a Palin presidency, I’m pretty sure most journalists would recoil in horror from the idea.”

Keller’s probably correct.

Ten percent of the U.S. newsroom vote may even be a generous assessment.

But rather than consider the implications of such intellectual lopsidedness, Keller breezily wrote that “watching Palin answer a question is like watching a runaway train struggling to stay on the rails, and fact-checking her is like fishing with dynamite.”

OK, that’s amusing.

But in acknowledging and then sidestepping the larger matter of viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, Keller left a more compelling issue unaddressed.

A broad-based ongoing discussion about the dearth of intellectual diversity in the newsroom — why so few American journalists self-identify as politically conservative — would be beneficial to American journalism.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, intellectual diversity and contrarian thinking are objectives that deserve to be vigorously promoted in American newsrooms.

“It is certainly not inconceivable,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “that a robust newsroom culture that embraces viewpoint diversity, encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassing tales such as the Washington Post’s ‘fighting to the death’ story about Jessica Lynch.”

The Post’s bogus front-page story in 2003 about Lynch’s supposed battlefield heroics in Iraq catapulted her to international fame and celebrity. The newspaper has never fully explained how it botched the Lynch story and has never identified the anonymous sources that led it astray.

To its credit, the Post has raised the issue of limited intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

Notably, Deborah Howell, the newspaper’s former ombudsman, wrote in mid-November 2008 that more “conservatives in newsrooms and rigorous editing would be two” ways to confront what she termed “the perception of bias” in political coverage. (The week before, Howell had reported a “tilt” in the Post’s 2008 campaign coverage, in Obama’s favor.)

In her column about perception bias, Howell wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Tellingly, Howell quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong.

“But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel called for “more intellectual diversity among journalists” and was further quoted by Howell as saying:

“More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

I wonder what Keller would say to that.

I offer it as grist for one of his columns.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Why history is badly taught, poorly learned

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths on June 19, 2011 at 12:41 pm

I’m not much a fan of the work of David McCullough, the award-winning popular historian whose latest book is the well-received The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

I couldn’t get through McCullough’s acclaimed 1776, a military history of a decisive year in American life that oddly had little to say about the Declaration of Independence.

But McCullough, in an interview published in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, offered several provocative and telling points about why American history is so badly taught and so poorly grasped.

The splintered state of historical studies is one of the factors, McCullough said, adding:

“History is often taught in categories — women’s history, African American history, environmental history — so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

That’s a fair point. History by interest group can be an invitation to incoherence.

McCullough also pointed out that textbooks on history tend to “so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence … are given very little space or none at all.”

What’s more, as McCullough noted, textbooks often are tedious, boring, and poorly written. Historians by and large “haven’t learned to write very well,” McCullough wrote.

Although McCullough didn’t mention this in the interview, learning history can be frustrating because history is prone to error, distortion, and myth.

History quite simply can be myth-encrusted — and unlearning the myths of history can be challenging, time-consuming, and often unrewarding.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, myths in history spring from many sources, including the timeless appeal of the tale that’s simple and delicious.

A telling example is the undying tale about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow in an exchange of telegrams with Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, among the many reasons for doubting that anecdote are Hearst’s denial and the absence of any supporting documentation. The Remington-Hearst telegrams have never surfaced.

But the tale lives on, as an appealing yet exceedingly simplified explanation about the causes of the Spanish-American War and as presumptive evidence of Hearst’s madcap and ethically compromised ways.

The urge to simplify history also explains the tenacity of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when the CBS News anchorman’s assessment of the Vietnam War as a “stalemate” supposedly prompted President Lyndon Johnson to realize the folly of his war policy and not to seek reelection.

However, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the program when it aired, and Cronkite until late in his life claimed his “stalemate” assessment had at best modest influence, that it was “another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

And even that effect was probably exaggerated.

But the notion that the “Cronkite Moment” was powerful and decisive has been promoted by many historians, notably David Halberstam in his error-riddled The Powers That Be.

The cinema, too, often injects error and misunderstanding into historical topics.

Hollywood’s treatment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative reporting for the Washington Post is an important reason why many people erroneously believe that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Good history and successful cinema are quite often at odds, as Richard Bernstein noted in a memorable essay published several years ago in the New York Times.

“Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history,” Bernstein wrote.

So there are plenty of reasons beyond McCullough’s useful observations as to why American history is so poorly understood.

It may always be that way. After all, as the Scottish historian Gerard De Groot has noted, history is “what we decide to remember.

“We mine the past,” he has written, “for myths to buttress our present.”


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That was quick: Crummy Cleveland mob pic now out on DVD

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on June 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm

It was just three months ago when a low-budget yet widely reviewed movie about Cleveland’s 1970s mob scene came out in limited release.

The film, Kill the Irishman, never much caught on and was released this week in DVD.

I’m hardly surprised that its time in theaters was so brief.

Update: I’ve now seen Kill the Irishman and it’s not as dreadful as anticipated. Still, the movie meanders without making much of a point, other than to glamorize the Cleveland mob scene of the 1970s and romanticize a violence-prone hood named Danny Greene.

I’ve not seen the movie but have enjoyed reading the reviews, such as the one in the New York Times that called Kill the Irishman “an extravagantly corny ode to the collapse of the Cleveland mafia in the 1970s” that “never misses an opportunity to mythologize the meatheads who populate [the] script.”

The Los Angeles Times review likened Kill the Irishman to “clichéd shards of mob movies that add up to the usual ‘Goodfellas’ knockoff.”

Plain Dealer, October 7, 1977

Kill the Irishman is based on the violent life of a Cleveland mob figure, Daniel J. (Danny) Greene, best known for having survived several attempts on his life before falling victim to a deadly car bombing in 1977.

I was in Cleveland then, a young reporter for the city’s morning newspaper, the Plain Dealer. I remember the city’s mob scene as murky, chaotic, and not at all glamorous; its figures — including Greene — were scarcely heroic.

Greene rather struck me as an arrogant, somewhat off-kilter punk.

He was hardly a legendary character possessing the stuff that would attract serious attention beyond Cleveland.

What most rankled me about Kill the Irishman was its exaggerated premise, that there were 36 bombing in the heart of Cleveland in the summer of 1976 as Greene waged a turf war with the local Italian mafia.

Sure, Hollywood exaggerates. A lot. But a documentary-esque film ought not to cock a snook at the truth. And there was no such bombing rampage in downtown Cleveland that summer.

The claim is preposterous.

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, the figure of 36 bombings appears to have been mistakenly taken from an article published in May 1977 in the Plain Dealer, as a sidebar to the account of the bombing death of John A. Nardi, a mob figure allied with Greene.

The sidebar article said that in all of 1976, there had been 21 bombings in Cleveland and 37 in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and most of its many suburbs. That’s a lot, but nothing as stunning or sustained as 36 bombings in the heart of the city in a single summer. Such a spree would correspond to 12 bombings a month.

That never happened.

Also off-putting is the movie’s clear objective of glamorizing the unglamorous Danny Greene. One reviewer of the Blu-Ray version called Kill the Irishman “a clichéd offering of criminal worship ….” Well said.

So maybe I’ll rent the DVD. Some day.


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