W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Bay of Pigs’ Category

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2016

In 'Napalm girl', Bay of Pigs, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

Media Myth Alertscreen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm called attention in 2016 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases discussed in a new, expanded edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, which was published in October.

Here is a rundown of Media Myth Alert’s five top posts of the year, followed by references to other notable mythbusting writeups of 2016.

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures (posted August 22): The new edition of Getting It Wrong includes three new chapters — one of which debunks the myths associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which showed a cluster of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village northwest of Saigon.

Most prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. forces — a claim the Los Angeles Times repeated in a profile in August about Nick Ut of the Associated Press, who took the photograph on June 8, 1972. The profile described how “Ut stood on a road in a village just outside of Saigon when he spotted the girl — naked, scorched by American napalm and screaming as she ran.”

Shortly after Media Myth Alert called attention to the erroneous reference to “American napalm,” the Times quietly removed the modifier “American” — but without appending a correction.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years.

The notion of American responsibility for the napalm attack took hold in the months afterward, propelled by George McGovern, the hapless Democratic candidate for president in 1972. McGovern referred to the image during his campaign, saying the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America.”

That metaphoric claim was “plainly overstated,” I write, adding:Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

“The napalm was dropped on civilians ‘not in the name of America’ but in an errant attempt by South Vietnamese forces to roust North Vietnamese troops from bunkers dug at the outskirts of the village. That is quite clear from contemporaneous news reports.”

The Los Angeles Times placed the “napalm girl” photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby); the caption made clear that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

So why does it matter to debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl”?

The reasons are several.

“Excising the myths … allows the image to be regarded and assessed more fairly, on its own terms,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Debunking the myths of ‘Napalm Girl’ does nothing to diminish the photograph’s exceptionality. But removing the barnacles of myth effectively frees the photograph from association with feats and effects that are quite implausible.” That’s a reference to other myths of the “Napalm Girl,” that the image was so powerful that it swung public opinion against the war and hastened an end to the conflict.

But like the notion of American culpability in the errant attack, those claims are distortions and untrue.

NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ Bay of Pigs coverage (posted November 26): Fidel Castro died in late November and the New York Times in a lengthy obituary called the brutal Cuban dictator “a towering international figure.” The Times obituary also invoked a persistent media myth about its own coverage of the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The obituary said that the Times, “at the request of the Kennedy administration, withheld some” details of the invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the administration of President John F. Kennedy “asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.”

What I call the “New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth” centers around the editing of a single article by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times. Eleven days before the invasion, Szulc reported from Miami that an assault, organized by the CIA, was imminent.

Editors at the Times removed references to imminence and to the CIA.

“Imminent,” they reasoned, was more prediction than fact.

And the then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that he “was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.” So references to CIA were replaced with the more nebulous term “U.S. officials.”

Both decisions were certainly justifiable. And Szulc’s story appeared April 7, 1961, above-the-fold on the Times front page (see image nearby).

NYT_BayofPigs_frontAs the veteran Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. … The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

What’s rarely recognized or considered in asserting the suppression myth is that the Times’ reporting about the runup to the invasion was hardly confined to Szulc’s article.

Indeed, the Times and other news outlets “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write, noting that the newspaper “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs” on April 17, 1961.

Suppressed the coverage was not.

Smug MSNBC guest invokes Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam (posted May 3): Donald Trump’s shaky grasp of foreign policy invited his foes to hammer away at his views — and one of them, left-wing activist Phyllis Bennis, turned to a tenacious media myth to bash the Republican candidate.

Bennis did so in late April, in an appearance on the MSNBC program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.MSNBC logo

Trump during his campaign vowed to eradicate ISIS, the radical Islamic State, but wasn’t specific about how that would be accomplished.

Bennis, showing unconcealed smugness, declared on the MSNBC show that Trump’s reference to ISIS “was very reminiscent of Nixon’s call when he was running for president [in 1968] and said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’ The secret plan of course turned out to be escalation.”

In fact, the “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

He didn’t campaign for the presidency by espousing or touting or proclaiming a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

That much is clear from the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, if Nixon had campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, as Bennis so snootily claimed, the country’s leading newspapers would have publicized it.

Nixon did publicly confront the notion he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon also said on that occasion:

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

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim was not a feature of his campaign.

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’ (posted December 18): The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Confirmation of its zombie-like character was in effect offered by Politico in December, in an essay about the “long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico cited, as if it were true, the fake tale of Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert post about Politico‘s use of the mythical quote:

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of ‘fake news‘ that have masqueraded as fact for years.”

The tale, I write in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, begun in 1895 — was the very reason Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba at the end of 1896.

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter is accessible here.

NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies (posted January 3): Watergate’s mythical dominant narrative has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the crimes that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

The dominant narrative (the heroic-journalist trope, I call it) emerged long ago, and Hollywood — specifically, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — is an important reason why.

The movie, All the President’s Men, was released to critical acclaim 40 years ago and unabashedly promotes the heroic-journalist interpretation, that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling Watergate and bringing down Nixon.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured” — as was suggested by a New York Times in an article in early January.

The article, which appeared beneath the headline “Journalism Catches Hollywood’s Eye,” embraced the heroic-journalist myth in referring to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Their reporting had no such effect, however much All the President’s Men encouraged that simple notion.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions “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, 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 the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s notable that principals at the Post declined over the years to embrace the mediacentric interpretation.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, for example:

“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.”

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The January article was not the first occasion in which the Times treated the heroic-journalist myth as if it were true.

In an article in 2008 about Woodward’s finally introducing Bernstein to the high-level Watergate source code-named “Deep Throat,” the Times referred to the “two young Washington Post reporters [who] cracked the Watergate scandal and brought down President Richard M. Nixon.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2016 :

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NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ pre-Bay of Pigs coverage

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times on November 26, 2016 at 5:04 pm

The New York Times obituary today about Fidel Castro not only praised the brutal Cuban dictator as “a towering international figure,” it stepped into the dogged media myth about its own coverage of the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The obituary said that the Times, “at the request of the Kennedy administration, withheld some” details of  it was planning to report about invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

NYT_BayofPigs_frontNot quite.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — a second edition of which was published recently — the notion that the administration of President John F. Kennedy “asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.

“There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the Times report of April 7, 1961, a front-page article [see nearby] that lies at the heart of this media myth.”

The article was written by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times, and filed from Miami on the afternoon of April 6, 1961 — 11 days before the CIA-backed assault on Cuba’s southern coast.

Kennedy, I point out, essentially had no opportunity to speak with Times officials between the time when Szulc’s story was received at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type.

That’s because the president “spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon,” I note in Getting It Wrong. “They traveled aboard the Honey Fitz, a ninety-two-foot presidential yacht. The round trip from Washington on that chilled and windy afternoon lasted two hours and forty minutes.

“It was 6:25 p.m. when the yacht returned to an Army Engineers dock in Washington, at the end of the outing. Kennedy and Macmillan rode together to the White House, arriving at 6:28 p.m. … leaving only a very small window for Kennedy to have been in touch with Times executives before the first edition of the newspaper hit the streets.”

I further note that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston has said that “White House telephone logs reveal no calls that were placed to senior Times officials on April 6, 1961.”

Had the writer of the Times obituary consulted Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s account by Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Times assistant managing editor, he would have found an unequivocal assertion that Kennedy was unaware of Szulc’s dispatch before it was published.

Salisbury wrote:

“The government in April 1961 did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone [top Times officials] about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.

Those discussions included Szulc’s characterization of the invasion as imminent. The reference was removed from the article — an entirely justifiable decision, especially, as it turned out, the invasion was not imminent.

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

In addition, I write in Getting It Wrong, the suppression myth myth about the Times and the Bay of Pigs “fails to recognize or acknowledge that the Times coverage was not confined to Szulc’s article” published 10 days before the invasion.

“It ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion. The Times did not abandon the Cuba-invasion story after April 7, 1961,” I note. “Far from it.

“Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.”

On April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the Cuban exiles and their eagerness to topple Castro. The article appeared beneath the headline “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near” and quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, as saying that a revolt against the Castro regime was “imminent.”

On April 9, 1961, the Times published another front-page article by Szulc that report how Cuban exile leaders were attempting to paper over rivalries and divisions in advance of what Szulc described as the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.” The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training … will succeed with the aid of an internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Szulc in those sentences effectively summarized the strategic objectives for what soon became the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Two days later, on April 11, James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, reported on the Times’s front page that Kennedy administration officials were divided “about how far to go in helping the Cuban refugees to overthrow the Castro Government.” Reston recounted in detail how Kennedy had been receiving conflicting counsel from advisers in the White House, the CIA, and the State and Defense departments. Reston also identified the time pressures facing Kennedy, writing:

“It is feared that unless something is done fairly soon nothing short of direct military intervention by United States forces will be enough to shake the Castro Government’s hold over the Cuban people.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Times “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs.” Not all preinvasion reports were spot-on accurate. But the newspaper’s coverage of the run-up to the Bay of Pigs debacle was fairly extensive.

“Not only does the suppression myth ignore this,” I write, “it also fails to recognize that coverage of invasion preparations appeared in newspapers other than the New York Times.

“Indeed, the coverage reached a point where Kennedy, a week before the invasion, told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger: ‘I can’t believe what I’m reading! Castro doesn’t need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.'”

WJC

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NY Times ‘suppression myth’ makes appearance in ‘Freedom of Speech’

In Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Watergate myth on May 20, 2015 at 5:02 pm

The tale about the New York Times suppressing its own reporting in the runup to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba isn’t necessarily the most popular of media myths.

NYT_BayofPigs_front

It made page one

It’s not recounted as frequently as, say, the mythical Cronkite Moment of 1968 or the dubious tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in 1898.

But the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth is a tale tenacious as it is delicious, and it makes a cameo appearance in Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword, a recently published book by a former Timesman, David K. Shipler.

The suppression myth, which is addressed and debunked in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, has it that the Times bowed to pressure from the administration of President John F. Kennedy and spiked, killed, or otherwise sanitized a detailed report about the pending invasion.

Shipler invokes the suppression tale this way:

“The most famous and catastrophic case of journalists’ abandoning their role in getting the facts out was the Times‘s decision to water down advance information on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.” He doesn’t say what the Times supposedly held back, or just how that was “catastrophic.”

But he does claim that “a full-throated disclosure might have helped derail the plan, saving lives and preventing a humiliating defeat.”

Speculation aside, Shipler’s right that the ill-fated invasion was a humiliating defeat for the Kennedy administration: A brigade of U.S.-trained foes of the regime of Fidel Castro landed on the beaches of southern Cuba in April 1961 and was rolled up within three days.

But Shipler’s claim about the Times’ having watered down “advance information” is supported by no relevant or persuasive evidence. He cites none in the endnotes of his book.

The Times article that rests at the heart of this media myth was neither suppressed, killed, nor eviscerated.

That article (see above) was written by a veteran correspondent, Tad Szulc, who reported from Miami that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had received military training for a mission to topple Castro’s communist regime; the actual number of invaders was closer to 1,400.

Overstatement was hardly the article’s most controversial or memorable element.

Supposedly, editors at the Times caved in to pressure from the White House and emasculated Szulc’s report, removing key elements about the invasion plans.

That Kennedy intervened in the Times’ editorial decisionmaking in April 1961 is widely believed, and lives on as a cautionary tale, as Shipler suggests.

But as I discussed in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance” about Szulc’s dispatch, which was filed April 6, 1961.

The article was published the following day, above the fold on the Times front page.

In his book Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, Harrison Salisbury offered a detailed account about the handling of Szulc’s dispatch.

“The government in April 1961,” Salisbury wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. …. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.

The editing was cautious but hardly unreasonable.

A reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, which served to improve the story’s accuracy. The anti-Castro exile force launched its assault on April 17, 1961, 10 days after Szulc’s report appeared, an interval that hardly connotes “imminence.”

References to the CIA’s role in training the Cuban exiles were omitted from the story in favor of the more nebulous terms “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts.” Turner Catledge, then the Times managing editor, said the U.S. government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “more than most people realize, and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

An entirely defensible editorial decision.

The prominence given Szulc’s report was modified, from a planned four-column display to a single column. If the invasion was not believed imminent, then a four-column headline was difficult to justify, Catledge reasoned.

Those decisions were judicious, and certainly not unreasonable.

“Most important,” as Salisbury wrote, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

On the front page.

What’s often ignored is that Szulc’s article of April 7, 1961, was no one-off story. It scarcely was the Times’ last word about invasion plans.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, “Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.” Not all the reports were accurate in all their details, but the combined effect was to signal something important was afoot.

For example, on April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the exiles and their eagerness to topple Castro.

The article appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near,” and quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council.

The following day, the Times front page included a report by Szulc describing how Cuban exile leaders were attempting to paper over differences in advance of what was termed the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.”

The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training in Central America and Louisiana, will succeed with the aid of internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

That essentially was the plan to topple Castro.

Three days later, James Reston, then the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, wrote in a column that considered the moral dimensions of an assault on the Castro regime. Reston’s column said that “while the papers have been full of reports of U.S. aid to overthrow Castro, the moral and legal aspects of the question have scarcely been mentioned.”

Other news organizations, including the Miami Herald and New York Herald Tribune, reported on pre-invasion preparations as well, all of which prompted Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, to recall in a memoir a few years later:

“To declare in mid-April of 1961 that I knew nothing of the impending military action against Cuba except what I read in the newspapers or heard on the air was to claim an enormous amount of knowledge.”

WJC

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More media myths from CounterPunch

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

CounterPunch touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”

It’s building a reputation for indulging in media-driven myths, too.

Since mid-March, essays posted at CounterPunch have:

CounterPunch has indulged yet again in media myth, in a commentary in its weekend edition about Rupert Murdoch’s troubled media empire.

CounterPunch claimed the tough old media mogul has “surpassed William Randolph Hearst,” press baron of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “in practicing yellow journalism.”

The commentary invoked the hoary media myth about Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

According to CounterPunch, Hearst said: “Get me the photos and I’ll get you the war.”

That was, CounterPunch added, “Hearst’s 1898 dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

Provocative tale. But it’s pure media myth.

Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

Among the reasons:  The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow — a cable sent to artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba — has never turned up.

More significantly, as I point out Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about Hearst’s purported vow suffers from “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.”

That is, it would have been absurd and illogical for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In addition, the Spanish colonial authorities who ruled Cuba closely controlled and censored incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic: They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary telegram, had it been sent.

But in fact, there was, as I write in Getting It Wrong, no chance that telegrams would have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.

So “furnish the war” (or, “provide the war”) wasn’t at all Hearst’s “dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

That Hearst helped bring on the war with Spain is a media myth, too.

It’s a myth dismantled in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I pointed out that the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “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.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1897, when Remington arrived in Havana on assignment for Hearst.

WJC

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Why they get it wrong

In Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 3, 2011 at 6:49 am

It’s striking how several well-known journalists and news outlets have indulged over last six months in media-driven myths, those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The lineup of myth-indulgers is impressive and, among others, includes:

  • Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, who rubbed shoulders with the Bay of Pigs suppression myth in a column in the Times in January. The suppression myth holds that at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, the Times killed or emasculated its report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. That tale is unfounded, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.
  • Mother Jones magazine which, in its May/June cover story by Rick Perlstein, offered up a rare two-fer — two media myths discussed in a single article. One of the myths was the hoary and surely apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his reputed vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. The other was about the so-called the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, in which Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam was so powerful as to alter U.S. policy.
  • Keith Olbermann, the acerbic cable television commentator who, as he quit his prime-time Countdown show in January, referred to the  “exaggerated rescue” of Army private Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War. Such claims, raised as long ago as 2003, were unsubstantiated by an inquiry of the Defense Department’s inspector general who found the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover Lynch, a prisoner of war, “under combat conditions.”

What accounts for such lapses by prominent journalists and their outlets? Why do these and other media-driven myths often find their way into news reports and commentaries?

Some media myths are just too good not to be true; they almost are too good to take time to check out. The tale about Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” certainly falls into this category. It shouldn’t be at all difficult to locate references to the dubious character of the anecdote, which has been the subject of repeated debunking over the years.

Likewise, it can be far easier to invoke a media myths that to commit to the tedium of research and legwork. Media myths are convenient, readily at hand. Poking into their details takes time, and a willingness to challenge what are accepted as consensus narratives.

As I noted in discussing Keller’s column that invoked the Bay of Pigs suppression myth:

“Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.”

Similarly, some media myths (such as the illusory “Cronkite Moment“) may be too ingrained, too dearly held by journalists, ever to be uprooted or thoroughly repudiated.

Unlearning such tales is no small challenge, after all. The conundrum of unlearning was addressed a few months ago in a Wall Street Journal column, which noted:

“For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding.”

Media myths also can be convenient means of scoring political points. The two-fer in Mother Jones magazine, for example, were presented as part of a sneering attack about “fact-free” Republicans.

Moreover, media myths — the most prominent of them, anyway — resonate in contemporary contexts.

History, it has been said, is “what we decide to remember,” and journalism history is not an exception. Recalling and celebrating the memory of Cronkite’s supposedly telling truth to power about Vietnam — or of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bringing down a corrupt presidency — is to offer reassurance to contemporary journalists at a time of confusion and upheaval in their field.

Deciding to remember such mythical tales is understandable if not justifiable, given that those tales bring solace and reassurance amid sweeping uncertainty.

WJC

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Recalling how a ‘debunker’s work is never done’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

It’s been a year since Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, posted his review of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. The review offered the telling observation that a “debunker’s work is never done.”

So true.

In the 52 weeks since the review went online, I’ve posted more than 275 essays at Media Myth Alert, nearly all of them calling attention to media-driven myths that have found their way into traditional or online media.

So, no, a debunker’s work is never done.

The top posts over the past 52 weeks, as measured by page views, were these:

Shafer’s review sent traffic to Media Myth Alert, too, as it linked to my post that critically discussed Evan Thomas’ book, The War Lovers.

The review, which appeared beneath the headline “The Master of Debunk,” noted that “the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.”

And repetitive firepower. Debunking media myths will happen no other way.

Even then, some myths are so deeply ingrained — so delicious, beloved, and readily at hand — that they’ll probably never be thoroughly uprooted and forgotten.

The tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century is an excellent example. It’s been around more than 100 years.

And it surely is apocryphal, for a long list of reasons I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

Even so, “furnish the war” lives on — hardy, robust, and apparently only slightly dented for all the debunking broadsides hurled its way. Evan Thomas turned to it in War Lovers. So, more recently, did the Nieman Watchdog blog.

Another especially hardy media myth is the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam supposedly prompted President Lyndon Johnson to declare:

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

Or something along those lines. Versions vary markedly.

That they do vary is among the many indicators the “Cronkite Moment” is media myth. Another, more direct indicator is that Johnson did not see the program when it aired.

The “Cronkite Moment” surely will live on, too, as it represents so well the news media conceit of the effects of telling truth to power, of serving as the indispensable watchdog of government.

Shafer noted the durability of media myths in one of his periodic dismantlings of the “pharm party” phenomenon, which in some form has circulated for 40-some years. (The mythical “pharm party” has it that teens swipe pharmaceuticals from medicine cabinets at home, dump the purloined pills into a bowl at a party, and take turns swallowing handfuls to see what sort of high they’ll reach.)

Shafer wrote early last year:

“I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the ‘pharm party’ meme. Since June 2006, I’ve written five columns … debunking pharm parties, and yet the press keeps on churning out stories that pretend the events are both real and ubiquitous.”

He added:

“Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable.”

The Hearstian vow is easily within the 40-plus-years category. So, too, are the “Cronkite Moment,” the Bay of Pigs suppression myth, and the War of the Worlds panic meme.

Irrepressible myths, all.

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, is the winner of the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism.

The award will be presented in September at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, which are dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a summary of the 10 myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.
  2. War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is exaggerated.
  3. Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy.
  4. Bay of Pigs: The New York Times did not suppress its reporting in the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
  5. Cronkite-Johnson: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment or revision of U.S. war policy.
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September 1968.
  7. Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds.
  8. Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
  9. Jessica Lynch: The Washington Post’s erroneous reporting about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War gave rise to several myths about her capture and rescue.
  10. Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” SPJ says, and “must be based on original research; either published or unpublished, and must have been completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”

WJC

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Bay of Pigs suppression myth too rich and delicious to die away

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on May 7, 2011 at 5:31 am

The tale of the New York Times censoring itself in the runup to the Bay of Pigs invasion 50 years ago supposedly offers timeless lessons about the perils of journalists surrendering to the agenda of government.

That anecdote, I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is “often cited as an object lesson … about what can happen when independent news media give in to power-wielding authorities.”

Supposedly, in early April 1961, the Times spiked or emasculated a detailed report about the invasion preparations — and did so at the urging of President John F. Kennedy.

But as I discuss in detail in Getting It Wrong, neither Kennedy nor anyone in his administration asked or lobbied the Times to kill or tone down that report — which was written by a veteran correspondents named Tad Szulc, ran to more than 1,000 words, and was published April 7, 1961, above the fold on the newspaper’s front page.

Like many consensus narratives and media-driven myths, though, the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression tale is too neat and tidy, too rich and delicious, ever to die away.

A hint of that came yesterday at the online site of CounterPunch, which touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”

CounterPunch posted an essay that referred to the Times’ purported act of self-censorship, stating:

“Back in April 1961, the Times deleted from Tad Szulc’s story the time and place of landing of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion because President Kennedy told the Times’ publisher it would not serve U.S. National Security interests. (David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, p. 448).”

It’s neat the passage was cited. But the citation doesn’t render it accurate.

Halberstam‘s Powers That Be, after all, is no authoritative source on the tale of the Times‘ self-censorship. Far from it.

Halberstam’s account claimed that Kennedy called James (“Scotty”) Reston, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, “and tried to get him to kill” the Szulc story.

Szulc of the Times

According to Halberstam, Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately about what the Szulc story would do to his policy” and president warned that the Times would risk having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion a failure.

Heady stuff, but it never happened.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, there is “no evidence that Kennedy spoke with anyone at the Times” on April 6, 1961, the day Szulc’s dispatch was written, edited, and prepared for publication.

“The Kennedy Library in Boston says that the White House telephone logs reveal no calls were placed to Reston” or other Times executives that day, I write, adding:

“Kennedy had almost no chance to speak with those executives during the interval from when Szulc’s story arrived at the Times building in midtown Manhattan and when it was set in type.”

That’s because the president spent the last half of the afternoon of April 6, 1961, playing host to Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, on a lengthy cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.

The outing ended around 6:30 p.m., leaving Kennedy only a tiny window of opportunity to call Times executives before the first edition of the newspaper hit the streets.

Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer-winning Times correspondent and editor, offered in his book, Without Fear of Favor the most detailed account of the Times’ deliberations on the Szulc article. And Salisbury was unequivocal:

“The government in April 1961,” he wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone [Times President Orvil] Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or [Managing Editor] Turner Catledge about the story.”

The editing that Szulc’s story received served to improve its accuracy. The reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, as it represented “a prediction and not a fact,” as Reston wrote years later.

(The story Szulc submitted included no reference to “place of landing.”)

The invasion at the Bay of  Pigs was launched April 17, 1961, or 10 days after Szulc’s story appeared.

In the interim, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the Times “did not abandon the Cuba-invasion story ….  Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.”

So Szulc’s article of April 7, 1961, was no one-off effort. And it wasn’t sanitized at the request of the Kennedy administration, either.

WJC

Many thanks to Little Miss Attila
for linking to this post

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CBC modifies its Bay of Pigs claim — but still has it wrong

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on April 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

After my post Sunday that called attention to its erroneous characterization of  the New York Times reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, CBC News in Canada modified its claim that at “the direct request” of the President John F. Kennedy, the Times “played down” its story about the pending invasion of 50 years ago.

The CBC now says the Times “played down their story at the direct request of the Kennedy administration.” It’s a slight modification, but a significant shift in storyline, away from Kennedy to an unnamed person or persons in his administration.

Even so, the CBC offered no compelling evidence about who in the Kennedy administration made such a request to the Times, when, to whom, or how.

The modification does little more than muddy matters.

And the CBC still doesn’t have it right about Kennedy, the Times, and the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that devotes a chapter to the New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, there is no compelling evidence that Kennedy or anyone in his administration pressured, lobbied, or persuaded the Times to modify, emasculate, or sanitize the article it published April 7, 1961, which lies at the heart of this media-driven myth.

Szulc of the Times

That article was written by a veteran correspondent named Tad Szulc, who reported that a force of Cuban exiles had been training in the United States and Central America, preparing to launch an armed assault on the regime of Fidel Castro.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the recollections of none of the principal figures in the Times-suppression episode say that Kennedy pressured the newspaper’s editors about the Szulc story.

These recollections, I write, “include the memoirs of Turner Catledge, then the managing editor of the Times; of James (Scotty) Reston, then the chief of the Times’ Washington bureau; of Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, and of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., an award-winning Harvard historian who was a White House adviser to Kennedy.”

It’s highly improbable that a such juicy detail as Kennedy’s purported interference with the Times’ news judgment would have been so thoroughly ignored by such a disparate cast.

Moreover, the compelling insider’s account written by Harrison E. Salisbury, a former Times senior editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, asserted that the Kennedy White House neither knew about, nor meddled in, the newspaper’s deliberations about its pre-invasion coverage.

Salisbury was unequivocal about that, writing in his 1980 work, Without Fear or Favor:

“The government in April 1961, did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. Nor did President Kennedy telephone Dryfoos, Scotty Reston or Turner Catledge about the story…. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of its internal discussions and deliberations.

“Most important,” Salisbury added, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story.” The newspaper, he wrote, “believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

Even with the modification of its article about the Bay of Pigs, the CBC was not inclined to abandon entirely the notion that Kennedy, somehow, took a direct role in meddling with the Times. In a sidebar article posted Sunday, the CBC asserted:

“Numerous sources say that President Kennedy spoke with someone at the New York Times about their reporting there was going to be an invasion of Cuba.”

Many sources may have made such a claim. But assertion is not evidence. And none of the sources mentioned by the CBC offered documentation for their claims.

The CBC sidebar referred specifically to David Halberstam, who wrote The Powers That Be, and Peter Wyden, author of Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story.

Halberstam offered a highly colorful  yet uncorroborated claim that Kennedy called Reston “and tried to get him to kill” Szulc’s article.

Kennedy “argued strongly and passionately about what the Szulc story would do to his policy,” Halberstam wrote, adding that the president warned that the Times would risk having blood on its hands were the article published and the invasion a failure.

Wyden claimed that Orvil Dryfoos, then the Times president, “was in touch with” Kennedy, and the president “was upset” by plans to publish the report.

In a footnote, Wyden added: “It can no longer be determined whether Dryfoos contacted the President or whether Kennedy was told about the story and took the initiative.”

The CBC sidebar referred to yet another version, offered in a history of the Times titled The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times. According to that account, Reston took the initiative to call the CIA director, Allen Dulles, to speak with him about Szulc’s story as it was being prepared for publication.

“Dulles advised Scotty [Reston] that, for national security reasons, it would be best not to publish the story,” according to The Trust’s version. “However, if the Times decided it absolutely must publish, it should keep [references to] the CIA out of it.”

Such a conversation, however, was neither mentioned nor hinted at by Reston in his memoir, Deadline, which discussed in some detail the Times’ handling of the Szulc story.

And if it Dulles did offer such pre-invasion advice, the suggestions were made in response to Reston’s inquiry — which is quite apart from the Kennedy administration’s calling on, and lobbying, the Times.

Significantly, the versions of Halberstam, Weyden, and The Trust do not agree on who called whom, or what was discussed. Collectively, they offer a great deal of version variability — shifting accounts of what Kennedy supposedly said, and with whom at the Times he supposedly spoke.

Version variability of such magnitude can be a marker of a media-driven myth, as I point out in Getting It Wrong.

That Kennedy took the initiative and called on the Times to encourage the newspaper to tread lightly in its pre-invasion reporting is at the heart of this media myth. And there’s no evidence to support that claim — as the CBC’s modification indicates.

WJC

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Canada’s CBC invokes Bay of Pigs suppression myth

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on April 17, 2011 at 2:38 am

CBC News in Canada invoked the hardy New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth this weekend in a lengthy online article recapping the failed invasion of Cuba, which was launched 50 years ago today.

The suppression myth has it that the Times, at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, spiked or emasculated its detailed report about invasion preparations.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, neither Kennedy nor anyone in his administration asked or lobbied the Times to kill or tone down the pre-invasion report, which was published on the newspaper’s front page on April 7, 1961.

Moreover, the Times coverage of the pending invasion was not confined to that article.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong: “The suppression myth … ignores that several follow-up stories and commentaries appeared in the Times during the run-up to the invasion.”

The CBC, however, invoked the hoary suppression myth as if it were genuine. It declared, in reference to the Times report of April 7, 1961:

“The Times had actually played down their story at the direct request of Kennedy, something both he and The Times’ editors later regretted. Shortly after the invasion, Kennedy reportedly told a Times editor, ‘if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.'”

No call to the Times

While Kennedy did not call on Times editors before the invasion, he did say on separate occasions in the months afterward that had the newspaper printed more details about the pending invasion, it “would have saved us from a colossal mistake.”

Of course, such comments were quite self-serving. I note in Getting It Wrong that they “represented an attempt to deflect blame for the debacle” at the Bay of Pigs, where the invasion force of CIA-trained exiles was rolled up within three days.

James (“Scotty”) Reston of the Times later characterized Kennedy’s comments as “a cop-out,” adding:

“It is ridiculous to think that publishing the fact that the invasion was imminent would have avoided this disaster. I am sure the operation would have gone forward” nonetheless.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the Times’ pre-invasion coverage cited no prospective date for the invasion. But the newspaper’s front-page reports in April 1961 unmistakably signaled that something was afoot, that an attempt to oust Castro by arms was forthcoming. And on April 17, 1961, at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba, the invasion force of some 1,400 exiles launched their ill-fated attack.

The Times wasn’t alone, either, in reporting about the pending invasion. Its competition on the pre-invasion story included the Miami Herald, the New York Herald Tribune, and Time magazine.

According to a critique published in May 1961 in The Reporter, a journalists’ trade publication, the pre-invasion story “was covered heavily if not always well” by the U.S. news media.

So what, then, accounts for the emergence and tenacity of the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth?

I write in Getting It Wrong that the myth’s most likely derivation lies in confusion with a separate episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to hold off publishing a report about the Soviets having deployed nuclear-tipped weapons in Cuba.

On that occasion, when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed in the balance, the Times complied, holding off publication 24 hours.

“What likely has happened is that, over the years, distinctions between the separate incidents surrounding the Times and Cuba became blurred,” I write. “That is, it was mistakenly thought that Kennedy had called the Times executives about the newspaper’s coverage in the days before the Bay of Pigs invasion when, in fact, his call came on an entirely different matter in 1962.”

WJC

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