W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Further reason to pan Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Newsroom’: It embraces media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews on June 26, 2012 at 6:19 am

Aaron Sorkin’s preachy new HBO series, The Newsroom, has, deservedly, received some harsh reviews.

Among the most delicious of those critiques was the New Yorker’s observation that The Newsroom is “so naïve it’s cynical.” And the New York Times said that “at its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony.”

Naïve and sanctimonious: Two solid reasons to avoid The Newsroom, which presumes to offer a behind-the-scenes dramatization of a high-pressure cable news program.

Another reason to pan the show is its embrace of hoary media myths.

The embrace of myth came late in the first episode on Sunday, when Sam Waterston, who plays cable news chief Charlie Skinner, offers advice to Will McAvoy, the prickly and thoroughly unlikable anchorman played by Jeff Daniels.

“Anchors having an opinion isn’t a new phenomenon,” Waterston/Skinner tells Daniels/McAvoy. “Murrow had one, and that was the end of McCarthy. Cronkite had one, and that was the end of Vietnam.”

The references were to Edward R. Murrow, whose 30-minute program on CBS about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954 is often but erroneously credited with bringing down the Red-baiting senator, and to Walter Cronkite’s 30-minute report about Vietnam in 1968 which is often but erroneously described as a turning point in America’s war in Southeast Asia.

Both tales are media-driven myths — compelling and prominent stories about the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as improbable or wildly exaggerated.

The Murrow and the Cronkite anecdotes are both addressed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in the book how Murrow was very late in confronting the McCarthy menace, doing so only months and years after other journalists had repeatedly directed attention to the senator’s bullying tactics and his ready use of the smear.

Among those journalists was Drew Pearson, an aggressive, Washington-based syndicated columnist who became a persistent and searching critic of McCarthy days after the senator launched his communists-in-government witch-hunt in February 1950.

That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Pearson’s scathing columns so angered McCarthy that the senator assaulted Pearson following a dinner party at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington in December 1950.

“Accounts differ about what happened,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.”

That encounter certainly would be fodder for cable TV.

In any event, by March 1954, when Murrow turned his attention to McCarthy, the senator’s character and tactics were quite well-known.

“To be sure,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “it wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, Americans knew.

Cronkite’s report about Vietnam aired on February 27, 1968, and closed with the CBS News anchorman asserting that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be the way out of the morass.

Those observations were supposedly so powerful and insightful that they have come to be known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

In fact, though, Cronkite’s observations were scarcely novel or revealing. By the time his report aired, “stalemate” had been used by U.S. news organizations for months to characterize the war in Vietnam.

Not only that, but U.S. public opinion had grown dubious about the war long before the presumptive “Cronkite Moment.”

Cronkite’s commentary did little to turn Americans, or the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, against the war.

Cronkite often said as much, likening the program’s effect on policymakers to that of a straw. (Late in his life, though, Cronkite came to embrace the purported potency of his 1968 commentary.)

So why bother about — and why blog about — the embrace of media myth on Sorkin’s tiresome, eyeroll-inducing show?

A couple of reasons present themselves.

The blithe, casual reference on The Newsroom to Murrow and Cronkite helps insinuate the media myths in popular consciousness.  It reinforces their tenacity.

Embracing the myths serves also to promote the “golden age” fallacy, the appealing but exaggerated belief that there really was a time when American broadcast news produced giants — hallowed figures of the likes of Murrow and Cronkite who, in the contemporary media landscape, are nowhere to be found.

It is an enticing notion. But it’s flawed and misleading — and vastly overstates the contributions, and opinions, of Murrow and Cronkite.


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The media myths of Watergate: Part Five

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

This is the last of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the
Democratic National Committee.
This installment address the often-stated claim that enrollments in college journalism programs in the United States
soared in the aftermath of Watergate.

Watergate made Gerald Ford president — and made journalism seem sexy

It’s a subsidiary myth of Watergate, that the reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post — made legendary by the cinematic adaptation of their book, All the President’s Men — turned journalism into glamorous and alluring profession.

So alluring and heroic were the depictions of Woodward and Bernstein as they, ahem, toppled a corrupt president that young adult Americans in the 1970s thronged to collegiate journalism programs.

A commentary last week in Post made just that point, declaring that the film had “inspired a generation of journalism school students.” Similarly, a recent essay at Gawker.com said the glowing accounts of Woodward and Bernstein’s work “helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession.”

But it’s a media myth that Watergate stimulated journalism school enrollments — a myth that endures despite its thorough repudiation by scholarly research.

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter confronting what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was much of a stimulus.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies as they would surely have reflected heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging j-school enrollments.

But the evidence just isn’t there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education” resulted “not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who have been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflects the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s authors, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly that “students didn’t come rushing to the university because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein ….”

A separate study, conducted by a senior journalism scholar, Maxwell E. McCombs, reported in 1988 that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972.”

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy lives on “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

Watergate’s presumed stimulus on journalism school enrollments is an attractive and simplistic construct, easy to grasp, and easy to remember.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to remember — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.


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The media myths of Watergate: Part Four

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 20, 2012 at 7:40 am

This is the fourth of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week, with
the foiled burglary at the headquarters
in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment addresses the notion that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
placed the reporters in grave danger.

No film or documentary about Watergate has been seen more often by more people than All the President’s Men, the 1976 adaptation of the eponymous book by the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The movie won rave reviews. The New York Times called it “a spellbinding detective story” and “an unequivocal smash-hit — the thinking man’s Jaws.”

The Post once immodestly described All the President’s Men as “journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes” and “the best film ever made about the craft of journalism.”

For all its glowing notices, All the President’s Men was often sluggish in pacing. More than a few scenes showed reporters at their desk, talking into telephones and banging away at typewriters.

Hardly gripping cinema.

But a measure of drama and menace was injected near the close of the movie (see video clip below).

That came when Woodward’s stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source, at a meeting in a darkened parking garage, grimly warns the wide-eyed reporter, played by Robert Redford:

“Your lives are in danger.”

But was it even true? Had Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting about the misdeeds of men close to President Richard Nixon, unknowingly put their lives on the line? Were they targeted by Nixon’s henchmen? Or was this just dramatic license by Hollywood?

The movie leaves such questions hanging. The Woodward/Redford character informs the Bernstein character (played by Dustin Hoffman) about what “Deep Throat” said, and together they confer with the Post’s executive editor character (Jason Robards) — in the middle of the night, in the middle of the editor’s lawn.

But the movie closes before resolving the question of the hazards the reporters faced.

So were their lives really in danger?


Not according to the book, All the President’s Men.

The book discusses a late-night meeting between Woodward and “Deep Throat” in mid-May 1973 when the source — W. Mark Felt, a senior official at the FBI, as it turned out — advised the reporter to “be cautious.”

Woodward returned to his apartment and invited Bernstein to stop by. When he did, Woodward typed out a message and handed it to his colleague:

Everyone’s life is in danger.”

Bernstein gave a curious look and Woodward typed another note:

Deep Throat says electronic surveillance is going on and we had better watch it.”

Who was doing the surveillance? Bernstein asked in long hand.

“C-I-A,” Woodward silently mouthed.

For a time afterward, the reporters and senior editors at the Post took precautions to avoid the suspected surveillance of their activities.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men that they “conferred on street corners, passed notes in the office, avoided telephone conversations.”

But soon, they said, “it all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic” and they went back to their routines.

No evidence, they wrote, was ever found “that their telephones had been tapped or that anyone’s life had been in danger.”

At a program last week at the Newseum, Woodward said he took Felt’s warning “too literally. I think he was speaking metaphorically” about the hazards.

“I think it was an overreaction,” Woodward said.

On another occasion — an online chat five years ago — Woodward said the “most sinister pressure” he and Bernstein felt during Watergate “was the repeated denial” by Nixon’s White House “of the information we were publishing” as the scandal deepened.

Also in that chat, Woodward said of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men:

“The movie is an incredibly accurate portrait of what happened.”

Oh, sure, it is.

Even that Post review, which called the movie journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes, noted that All the President’s Men “over-glamorizes reporting, oversimplifies editing and makes power appear the only proper subject for a newsman’s pen.”


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The media myths of Watergate: Part Three

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

This is the third of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began
unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the most famous made-up line of Watergate.

“Follow the money.” It’s the best-known, most popular turn-of-phrase associated with the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

Felt: Never said it

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source with whom Bob Woodward of the Washington Post periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly proved crucial in understanding and unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

“Deep Throat” never advised Woodward to “follow the money.”

The passage appears in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation. It doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

The line was spoken by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie. (The real “Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official.)

Holbrook in All the President’s Men turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, conflicted, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie

He delivered the line, “follow the money,” with such raspy assurance and conviction that it seemed for all the world to be vital to understanding the scandal that began unfolding 40 years ago.

Follow the money” is certainly Watergate’s most memorable and mythical phrase; it is so pithy and emphatic that it seems almost too good not to be true.

Indeed, “follow the money” tends to be treated with reverence by news media. A “credo,” it’s been called.

Take, for example, a recent post at the “Daily Intel” blog of New York Magazine. The blog post began by invoking the famous phrase, with emphasis:

Follow the money. The pithy investigative advice Woodward and Bernstein attributed to Deep Throat is still brilliant and important, whatever else the Watergate reporters may have embellished.”

Brilliant and important?

Made up is more like it.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice neither would have unraveled the Watergate scandal nor led him to Nixon.

Besides, Woodward and Bernstein already were on the money trail.

One of their most important stories was in reporting that a $25,000 check to Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars.

The scandal, though, was much more than Nixon’s improper use of campaign funds. The president was forced to resign because he obstructed justice by approving a plan to cover up the burglary at the Democratic National Committee.

The simplified, follow-the-money construct not only is inaccurate and misleading: It serves to deflect attention from the array of forces that combined to expose Nixon’s crimes.

As I note in my 2010 book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s depth and dimension 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” that cost him the presidency.


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The media myths of Watergate: Part Two

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 18, 2012 at 5:42 am

This is the second of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week with
the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington
of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the notion
that the 
Washington Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Post’s Watergate story, June 18, 1972 (Ransom Center, University of Texas)

Watergate was America’s gravest political scandal. It began as a police beat story.

News of the scandal’s seminal crime — the thwarted break-in of June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. — was circulating within hours.

The opening paragraph of the Posts front-page report about the burglary, published 40 years ago today, made it clear that details had come from investigating authorities. The paragraph read:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

So it can’t be said the Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Nor can it be said that the newspaper “uncovered” crucial elements of the deepening scandal, which ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

Take, for example, Nixon’s secret audiotaping system at the White House.

Existence of the tapes was disclosed in July 1973 to a bipartisan select committee of the U.S. Senate (see video clip below).

The tapes were decisive to Watergate’s outcome; Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley I. Kutler, has characterized them as “the gift of the gods.”

The so-called “smoking gun” tape revealed that Nixon had approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in of DNC headquarters.

He did so in a conversation June 23, 1972, with his top aide, H.R. Haldeman. The contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public in early August 1974, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn it over to investigators.

The “smoking gun” tape sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resigning the presidency.

(As Kutler has noted, Nixon-White House tapes “released in 1997 clearly reveal” that the president knew about “hush money” payments to the Watergate burglars.)

Interestingly, the Post’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, later claimed to have had a solid lead about Nixon’s taping system — a lead they did not pursue.

They mentioned in their book, All the President’s Men, that Woodward had spoken about the tip with Ben Bradlee, then the Post’s executive editor.

Bradlee advised: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.”

And they didn’t.

Had they, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about the scandal.

Principals at the Post often have said that the newspaper’s reporting kept the Watergate story alive during the summer and fall of 1972, a time when few other news organizations seemed interested in pursuing the scandal.

Leonard Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor, renewed that claim in a recent commentary in the Post.

For “several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972,” Downie wrote, “Woodward, Bernstein and their colleagues on the local news staff of The Post were alone on the story.

“We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters.”

It’s a heroic interpretation.

But it’s not entirely accurate.

As I point out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “The Post may well have led other newspapers on the Watergate story — principally was because Watergate at first was a local story, based in Washington, D.C.

“But rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972.”

The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a first-person account in early October 1972 of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who acted as a lookout man in the Watergate burglary.

Significantly, the New York Times was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the burglars, a pivotal disclosure in mid-January 1973. The Times report made clear that efforts were under way to cover up and conceal the roles of others in the scandal.

John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, recalled in a memoir published years later that the Times report about hush-money payments “hit home!”

The disclosure, Dean wrote, “had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

And as Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in a classic essay in 1974, the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in directing attention to the scandal.

Moreover, George McGovern, Nixon’s hapless Democratic challenger for the presidency in 1972, not infrequently invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances. At one point in the summer of 1972, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary.

So in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.

The Post, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “was very much not alone.”


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The media myths of Watergate: Part One

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

This is the first of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth
that reporting by the 
Washington Post brought down
Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency

Other posts in this series
may be accessed here, here, here, and here.

For years, the dominant narrative of Watergate has been that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post revealed the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That’s also a media-driven myth — the heroic-journalist myth, as I called it in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the media-centric heroic-journalist construct “has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” serving as “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

The misdeeds of Watergate were many. Twenty men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.

Three powerful and related factors have propelled and solidified the heroic-journalist trope in the popular consciousness.

One factor was Woodward and Bernstein’s engaging book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, which came out in June 1974, just as the scandal was nearing culmination.

As Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s preeminent historian, has written, All the President’s Men “offered a journalistic brief to the nation as it prepared to understand and judge for itself” the growing evidence of Nixon’s guilt.

All the President’s Men was quite the success, holding the top spot on the New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks — through the climatic days of Watergate and beyond.

“The book’s impeccable timing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, served to “promote an impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.”

The book that helped promote a myth

That impression was deepened in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which was released to great fanfare and rave reviews in April 1976.

The movie placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling — and minimized or ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators.

Indeed, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The third factor in pressing the heroic-journalist myth firmly into the popular consciousness was the 30-year guessing game about the identity of Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source whom a Post editor code-named “Deep Throat.”

Speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” came not infrequently and was often prominent. The guessing game offered periodic reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage. The speculation effectively kept Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise might have.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly second in command at the FBI, disclosed that he had been the “Deep Throat” source — giving rise to yet another round of reminiscing about the heroic journalists  of Watergate.

Such preening was misplaced, of course.

As Max Holland, author of Leak, a recent book about Watergate and “Deep Throat,” has aptly put it:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

Interestingly, principals at the Post have periodically scoffed at and rejected the heroic-journalist narrative.

For example, Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, said at a program in 1997 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.”

And Woodward  complained in 1996 that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon.

“Totally absurd.”

Indeed. To explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to simplify and misunderstand the scandal. It is to misread history and indulge in a beguiling media-driven myth.


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Cronkite ‘the most-trusted’? Where’s the evidence?

In Debunking, Media myths on June 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

The notion that Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” has received fresh stimulus from the recently published biography about the avuncular CBS News anchorman.

‘Most trusted’? How so?

Author Douglas David Brinkley refers often in the book, titled Cronkite, to the anchorman’s “most trusted” status. But Cronkite contains no searching assessment about whether the epithet was justified or based on much empirical evidence.

It’s really a dubious characterization that has  morphed into a tiresome cliché. It was not credibly supported by public opinion polling: It was propelled by CBS advertising.

The “most trusted” epithet can be traced to a survey conducted in 1972 of 8,780 respondents in 18 states. The pollster, Oliver Quayle and Company, sought to assess and compare public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians.

Inexplicably, Cronkite was included in the Quayle poll, which meant he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Cronkite topped the Quayle poll, receiving a “trust index” score of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61%.

The results were not much of a surprise. As the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer wrote in a column shortly after Cronkite’s death in 2009, the anchorman’s score “seemed impressive until you considered the skunks polled alongside him.”

Brinkley mentions the poll in Cronkite and says it was strange that the anchorman was included.

But he raises no challenge to the odd methodology (the survey was highly unrepresentative) or to the unsurprising result. Instead, he writes:

“The poll confirmed overnight what had long been apparent: Cronkite was the ultimate reliable source.”

Confirmed? Including Cronkite’s name with those of mostly uninspiring politicians was scarcely a precision measure of “trust.” It was a dubious basis on which to build the claim of “most trusted.”

But the claim was enthusiastically embraced, and propelled, by CBS advertising.

On Election Day in November 1972, CBS published prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads carried this headline:

Re-elect the Most Trusted Man in America.”

In what seems a quaint reference to the limited broadcast news options of the early 1970s, the ad copy read:

“You’ll have three viewing choices on Election Night. … A good reason for watching us is because we’ve got a man on our slate who was recently voted the most trusted American in public life” — an allusion to the Quayle poll.

In italics, the ad copy referred to Cronkite as “The most trusted American in public life.”

CBS later modified the sweeping claim, characterizing Cronkite in an ad in the Washington Post in 1976 as “one of the most trusted men in America” (emphasis added).

Interestingly, Cronkite in the 1970s wasn’t always regarded as the most trusted television newsman, let alone “the most trusted” person in America.

A Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite that year came in fourth.

The following year, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So what did Cronkite have to say about this “trust” stuff? He was quoted in USA Today in 2002 as sort of pooh-poohing it all:

“Trust is such an individual thing. I don’t think it’s definable.”

Then what accounts for the enduring inclination to characterize Cronkite as having been the “most trusted man in America”?

One reason is that the epithet isn’t entirely outlandish.  Like many media myths, the “most trusted” claim rests on the cusp of plausibility. Cronkite was an esteemed anchorman. He cut an unthreatening-yet-authoritative presence on TV. His voice — what Shafer called a “furry baritone” — was as engaging as it was unmistakable.

But it’s the “golden age” fallacy that best accounts for the tenacity of the “most trusted” cliché.

As I describe in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, the “golden age” fallacy is that “flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring.” Such as the 1960s and 1970s, when Cronkite became a dominant figure in American broadcast journalism.

Writer Andrew Ferguson deftly identified this dynamic in an essay in the Weekly Standard in 2008.

Cronkite, Ferguson wrote, “is a kind of synecdoche for American journalism. … From the 1960s onward Cronkite was transformed by some mysterious process into a … spiritual force as imposing and weightless as a dirigible. He was an oracle, a teller of truths, the conscience of a nation, ‘the most trusted man in America.’

“American journalism followed the same trajectory into self-importance, borne aloft on the same draft of hot air and vanity.”

Voilá. The “golden age” fallacy, in full flight.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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40 years on: The ‘napalm girl’ photo and its associated errors

In Anniversaries, Debunking, New York Times, Photographs on June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

‘Napalm Girl’ image (Nick Ut/AP)

Nearly 40 years have passed since an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut, took one of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War — the image of a 9-year-old girl screaming in terror as she fled, naked, from a misdirected napalm attack.

In a recent retrospective article, the AP said the famous photo, taken June 8, 1972, “communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

There’s no denying the stunning quality of what often is called the “napalm girl” image. But whether it helped “end” the Vietnam War is improbable: That’s an exaggeration, a case of locating far too much significance in a single image.

By mid-June 1972, after all, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For American forces, the ground war was quickly winding down.

The “napalm girl” image figured in a recent New York Times obituary about Horst Faas, a gruff, German-born photographer who spent years in Vietnam, covering the conflict for the AP.

Faas won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work in Vietnam and, later, in Bangladesh. And he was instrumental in making sure the AP moved the “napalm girl” photograph across its wires.

The Times quoted Faas as saying in an AP oral history: “The girl was obviously nude, and one of the rules was we don’t — at the A.P. — we don’t present nude pictures, especially of girls in puberty age.” Even so, the Times wrote, Faas “set his mind on ‘getting the thing published and out.'”

Ut’s photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

The Times’ obituary described the photograph as showing “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”

Except that the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American.

It was South Vietnamese (as the AP correctly notes in its recent retrospective, stating: “As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end”).

By referring to “American planes,” the Times‘ obituary insinuates that U.S. forces were responsible for the napalm attack that preceded Ut’s photograph — and I pointed this out in an email to the Times.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied by email, saying:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all central or relevant.

I said as much in replying to Keepnews.

“I think you’re too eager to avoid a correction, or a clarification,” I wrote. “The manufacturer (or ownership) of the aircraft is inconsequential; far more important is who was flying the planes. And the obit’s wording (‘bombings in the countryside by American planes’) clearly suggests the aerial attacks were carried out [by] Americans, and that Americans caused the deaths and injuries. And that wasn’t the case. The aircraft were American-made, but flown by South Vietnamese pilots.

“A clarification seems in order,” I wrote, “to make the distinction clear.”

Keepnews sent this brief, dismissive response:

“Thank you for your feedback.”

In reply, I pointed out to Keepnews that the brief bios the Times published of the Pulitzer winners in 1973 correctly said that Ut had taken the photo “after South Vietnamese dropped napalm on own people by mistake.”

Keepnews sent no response, and the Times has neither corrected nor clarified the erroneous reference in the Faas obit to the aircraft that dropped the napalm.

The Times should.

After all, Bill Keller, then the newspaper’s executive editor, asserted in a column last year that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

It’s advice worth following.


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