W. Joseph Campbell

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2015

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

Media Myth Alert called attention in 2015 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases in which celebrities took up and repeated dubious tall tales about journalists and their work.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of the year, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2015.

Celebrities pushing media myths: Garrison Keillor and Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow (posted April 29): I noted in 2015 that the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century has become zombie-like: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Keillor_WritersAlmanacThe hoary old myth received a boost in April when, on the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth, the humorist and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, blithely invoked the unsubstantiated anecdote, which reinforces the superficial and misleading notion of Hearst as war-mongering newspaper publisher.

“In 1898,” Keillor told listeners of his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism, and it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons described in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Keillor

Keillor

Notably, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegraphed messages that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message, had it been sent.

Moreover, the sole original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote, James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, never said how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

And almost no one remembers that Hearst denied having sent such a message.

By the way, the transcript of Keillor’s remarks about Hearst and Remington remains posted at the “Writer’s Almanac” Web site. Uncorrected.

Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat”: Why is he biopic worthy? (posted November 27): W. Mark Felt, a disgraced former senior FBI official best-known as a secret source in the Watergate scandal, is to receive hero’s treatment in a biopic to be called Felt.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Peter Landesman, who is to produce and direct the film, was quoted last week as saying Felt will be akin to “a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.”

But why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy?

He was no noble or heroic figure.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the FBI’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the agency’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

FBI agents who conducted the illegal break-ins went through “desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen,” according to an account in the New York Times. “With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents” belonging to relatives of Weather radicals.

In 1980, Felt was convicted of felony charges related to those warrantless break-ins, which were known in the FBI as “black bag jobs.” He was fined $5,000 but not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The following year, Felt received an unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged at trial having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller argued that the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan trips over the “Cronkite Moment” myth (posted August 30): In late summer, the Wall Street Journal’s prominent weekend columnist, Peggy Noonan, attempted to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his soaring presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Noonan tripped over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan

That “moment” was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in visceral reaction, said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in  Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president then was attending a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally.

I also noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War: “Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite spoke the word on the air.

In her column, Noonan referred to shifting contours in American politics that have boosted Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She also wrote:

“Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may have been indirect and a bit confusing, given the topic of her column. But there was no doubt she was treating as authentic one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

Another prominent columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also referred to the “Cronkite Moment” in 2015.

Dowd did so in February, in a commentary that ruminated about the bizarre falsehoods told by Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News, about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: Williams claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Dowd, after noting that network evening news shows are shells of their much-watched former selves, turned implicitly to the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that CBS anchorman had “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say “we were losing.” He said the war was stalemated and that negotiations might eventually prove to be the way out. But saying so posed no risk to Cronkite’s career. By then, it was commonplace, and safe, to say the war had reached a stalemate.

No, Politico: Ben Bradlee’s WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon (posted May 27): In an account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Politico invoked the hardy media myth that the Post’s reporting on the scandal “brought down a president.”

Politico logoOf course, it had no such effect, as Bradlee himself had said, on the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate–the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

On Meet the Press in June 1997, Bradlee said “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee, who died in 2014, was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in conspiring to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin at the DNC headquarters.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s presidency represents a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, bipartisan congressional panels, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over to prosecutors the tapes that captured his guilty participation in the attempted coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal. Modest at best. They were hardly decisive, Politico’s claim notwithstanding.

Jorge Ramos, media-myth-teller (posted September 5): The international reach of media-driven myths was best defined in 2015 when Jorge Ramos, the self-important anchorman for Univision, went on an ABC News program and claimed that the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

He stated:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have—Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon—that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Ramos, who has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” invoked a similar claim a few days later in a commentary posted at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico.

What prompted these claims was Ramos’ conduct a news conference convened by Donald Trump. Ramos insisted on posing a question before being called on, a showboating moment that led to his being escorted from the room.

In any event, Ramos was wrong about the Post, its reporters, and Watergate.

Not even the newspaper’s principal figures during the Watergate period embraced the notion that the Post forced Nixon to quit in August 1974.

Notable among them was the publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham. She said 1997:

“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.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2015:

  1. […] what most interests Media Myth Alert is the Times article’s blithe and mistaken reference to “the investigation by Bob […]

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