W. Joseph Campbell

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2014

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

Media Myth Alert marked its fifth anniversary in 2014 and reported periodically during the year on the appearance of prominent media-driven myths.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of 2014, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2014.

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee (posted October 22, 2014): Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, died in October, setting off a wave of tributes that erred or exaggerated in describing the newspaper’s role in the Watergate scandal, which brought the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary said Bradlee, who was 93, had “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Britain’s Economist magazine said the Post under Bradlee “toppled President Richard Nixon.”

And so it went.

But as I pointed out in discussing those erroneous characterizations, Bradlee, himself, had rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. He said in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.)

His comment “that Nixon got Nixon” was in keeping with the tendency of senior figures at the Post to reject the simplistic notion that the newspaper’s reporting — especially that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — uncovered the crimes that led to Nixon’s downfall.

As Woodward once declared:

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

Indeed, it is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes.

It likewise failed to reveal the existence of the White House tapes, which clearly revealed Nixon’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Moreover, the story that Woodward and Bernstein still say they are most proud of was in error on crucial details.

That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — wrongly — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates who were seeking to run against Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda dismissed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome at best “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important in bringing about Nixon’s resignation were the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Maddow wrongly asserts that Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in early June, Rachel Maddow wrongly declared that the Pentagon had “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim about the Pentagon and Lynch, who was an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, and exclusive, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch: Botched WaPo story made her famous

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and said that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

Lynch in fact had not fired a shot. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post had reported. She suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the attack. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who wrote the hero-warrior story about Lynch — which was wrong in its most crucial details — made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and flatly declared:

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

Loeb, who then covered the Pentagon for the Post and who now is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also told NPR that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

He also said: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

But none of that vital context was mentioned by Maddow in her commentary on June 3.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary came amid the controversy stirred by the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out for her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a U.S. military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was quoted as saying.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already placed in the public domain.

Thorp, then a Navy captain, was assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. He was following, not fabricating: He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s sensational story about Lynch’s purported heroics, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt had prepared in Washington.

I noted in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Post’s central role in publicizing the bogus narrative, which was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But Maddow ignored the agenda-setting character of the Post’s reporting about Lynch: It didn’t fit her narrative.

Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo (posted May 29, 2014): There’s little doubt that the “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 was among the most memorable and disturbing images of the Vietnam War.

The photograph showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press and formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since, it also has become an artifact of exaggeration, as is evident in a tendency to ascribe powerful effects to the photograph, effects that it never had.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

In May, for example, the Guardian newspaper in London exaggerated the effects of the “napalm girl” image, asserting in an exhibit review that it had “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.”

In fact, “napalm girl” did neither.

U.S. public opinion had turned against the war in Vietnam well before June 1972. For example, nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

So Ut’s photo hardly can be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam; no single image “expedited” its end. The war’s confusing aims and uncertain policy objectives, its duration, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive to its outcome.

Seeking context for Obama’s war, finding media myth (posted September 24, 2014): It is a hoary myth myth that Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968, claiming to have in  mind a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Had that been the case, had Nixon run for president saying he had “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have called attention to such a claim.

But they didn’t, as a search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers makes clear. (The newspapers included the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune.) Searching for “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 that quoted Nixon as touting or promising or describing a “secret plan” for Vietnam.

Still, the old chestnut still circulates, usually invoked as supposed evidence of Nixon’s guile, shiftiness, and venality.

Secret plan? Who me?

Secret plan? Who me?

In September, for example, a columnist for the Washington Examiner summoned the myth in seeking historical context to discuss President Barack Obama’s air war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Obama wasn’t the first president to promise peace and deliver war,” the columnist, Timothy P. Carney, wrote. “Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on keeping America out of the Great War. Nixon promised a secret plan to exit Vietnam quickly.”

As I noted at the time, “Missing from Carney’s discussion were details about when Nixon made such a promise, and what the ‘secret plan’  entailed. Those elements are missing because Nixon never promised a ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam.”

The derivation of the hoary myth can be traced to the presidential primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In reporting on the speech, the wire service United Press International said Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam. But he made no claim about a “secret plan.”

And he was asked about having a secret plan, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times. Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

He also said then: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” Nixon’s comments were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War (posted June 20, 2014): No media myth is hoarier than the notion that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Warmonger?

Hearst: Warmongering publisher?

The claim is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the myth was offered up as fact in a commentary in Politico Magazine in June.

The commentary pointedly criticized the scholar Robert Kagan for having “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in a 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

But in characterizing the war as “the product” of Hearst’s yellow press, Politico erred.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “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.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I noted, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which since early 1895 had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion.

In a failed attempt to put down the uprising, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could neither support nor offer supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian nightmare in Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press, including but by no means limited to the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

The yellow press reported on — but certainly did not create — the terrible effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898. It was not the content of the yellow press — and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it — that pushed America into conflict with Spain.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2014:

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  1. […] I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, the notion […]

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