W. Joseph Campbell

‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘One Hour of Hope’

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I recently was on “One Hour of Hope,” a satirically named radio show in Gainesville, Florida, to speak about several of the media-driven myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Among them are the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the battlefield derring-do misattributed to Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War.

The host of “One Hour of Hope,” Doug Clifford, noted at the outset of the interview that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

I am sure the anniversary will give rise  to a resurgence of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, which holds that the dogged investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the scandal and brought about President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

That media myth has become the dominant narrative of Watergate, I noted during the radio interview, which aired on WSKY-FM.

The persistence of that misreading narrative, I said, can be traced to All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting, and especially to the 1976 movie by the same title.

The movie, by focusing on the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein, projects the notion that the reporters, with help from a the stealthy, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat,” unearthed the evidence that forced Nixon to quit.

That, I said, is a very simplistic interpretation, “a serious misreading of history” that ignores the far more powerful forces and factors that combined to uncover evidence of Nixon’s culpability.

Those forces, I noted, were typically subpoena-wielding and included committees of both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI, and a federal judge in Washington named John Sirica.

(Interestingly, the Washington Post, in its obituary of Sirica, said the judge’s “persistence in searching for the facts while presiding over the Watergate cases led to President Nixon’s resignation.”)

The myth of the “Cronkite Moment” represents another serious misreading of history, I said.

Clifford summarized the purported “Cronkite Moment,” that President Lyndon Johnson, in reaction to the CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment of the Vietnam War, said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

I noted that versions of what the president said vary markedly and also include:

  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

(Version variability of such magnitude, I write in Getting It Wrong, is a revealing marker of a media-driven myth.)

I noted in the interview that there’s no evidence Johnson saw Cronkite’s television report about Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968. At the time, the president was attending a birthday party for Governor John Connally on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Nor is there any credible evidence that Cronkite’s reporting about Vietnam influenced  Johnson’s decision, announced in late March 1968, not to seek reelection.

Clifford asked about reporting of the Jessica Lynch case, and I said the bogus tale of her battlefield heroics was largely due to “sloppy reporting by the Washington Post.”

I described the newspaper’s electrifying report, published April 3, 2003, that cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” in saying Lynch had fought fiercely in the ambush of Army unit in Iraq, that she had kept firing at Iraqi attackers even as she suffered gunshot and stab wounds.

But none of that proved true. Lynch fired not a shot in the attack. She was wounded not in the firefight with the Iraqis but in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the ambush.

I also noted in the interview how a “false narrative that the military made up the story” has come to define the Lynch tale.

One of the reporters on the Post’s botched story, I pointed out, has said that the Pentagon wasn’t the newspaper’s source, and also has said that far “from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

The false narrative, I added, has had the additional effect of obscuring recognition of the heroics of Donald Walters, a cook-sergeant who apparently performed the heroics deeds wrongly attributed to Lynch.

Walters laid down covering fire as Lynch and others in their unit sought to escape. He was captured when he ran out of ammunition, and soon afterward executed.

Clifford said his show’s title, “One Hour of Hope,” is a satiric gesture; his once-weekly, 60-minute program leans left while much of the rest of the station’s talk-show content is conservative in political orientation.

WJC

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