W. Joseph Campbell

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WSJ columnist, trying to explain Trump, trips over Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on August 30, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Peggy Noonan, the prominent weekend columnist for the Wall Street Journal, attempts in her latest commentary to explain the political phenomenon that is Donald Trump — and in doing so trips over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan (Harvard University)

That 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 my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; he was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally. Nor is there evidence the president watched Cronkite’s report on videotape at some later date.

So it’s hard to imagine how the president could have been much moved by a TV program he did not see.

I further 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’s report. For example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Which takes us to Noonan, formerly a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. She opens her column this weekend by writing: “So, more thoughts on Donald Trump’s candidacy, because I can’t stop being fascinated.”

The Trump phenomenon, she argues, signals that “[s]omething is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways” in American political life.

She also invokes Trump’s recent news conference confrontation with Jorge Ramos, the showboating anchorman for Univision. At the news conference, he refused to wait his turn in posing a question and was escorted from the room. Ramos was allowed back in a short time later.

Noonan, whose columns invariably lean on personal anecdotes, mentions an acquaintance named “Cesar,” a Dominican immigrant who works at a New York City grocery and who, she says, is more impressed by Trump than Ramos.

Cesar’s views, Noonan suggests, may be representative of the shifting political contours.

“Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America,” she writes. “New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. 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 seem odd, indirect, and even a bit confusing, given the context. But there’s no doubt she was treating as genuine one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

The “Cronkite Moment” indeed is one of journalism’s favored and most compelling stories, as it tells how a perceptive and courageous anchorman could effect powerful change.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

After all, Cronkite’s assessment is often said to have shifted U.S. public opinion about the Vietnam War.

Except that it didn’t.

That shift had taken place months earlier, and was detected when a plurality of respondents to a Gallup survey in October 1967 characterized as a mistake the Johnson administration’s decision to send U.S. troops to Vietnam.

A little more than two years earlier, in August 1965, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had reported softening support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite in early 1968 was following rather than leading public opinion on the war.

WJC

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10 years on: News media shy from revisiting flawed Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on August 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm
NOAA_Katrina

Katrina, 10 years ago

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Which was rather how Maureen Dowd characterized Katrina’s aftermath in her New York Times column, published September 3, 2005, under the headline, “United States Of Shame”:Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 3.39.57 PM

“America,” she wrote, “is once more plunged into a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning. But this time it’s happening in America.”

Far more measured and perceptive was her Times colleague, Jim Dwyer, whom Brian Thevenot quoted this way, in a searching critique of the coverage of Katrina:

“I just thought that some of the reports were so garish, so untraceable and always seemed to stop short of having actual witnesses to the atrocities … like a galloping mythical nightmare had taken control.”

The erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the important effect delaying the delivery of aid to New Orleans — and of defaming the residents of a battered city, depicting them as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

Little of the flawed coverage has been revisited or recalled in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. As they did in fifth anniversary retrospectives, journalists have mostly shied from addressing the errors in their coverage and have avoided considering how that coverage offers broader insights about reporting on disasters and other dramatic events.

The 10th anniversary reports have instead offered conflicting assessments about how New Orleans has made a comeback, or really hasn’t, or how impressions of the city’s recovery can sharply differ.

Heavily advertised television specials shown on ABC and Fox News skirted the wrong-headed reporting of 10 years ago, if they alluded to it at all.

ABC’s retrospective was broadcast Sunday night and was so sappy and boosterish as to be almost unwatchable.

Fox, which aired its look-back on Friday, was notably rough on Ray Nagin, the incompetent, bloviating mayor of New Orleans 10 years ago. Nagin since has gone to federal prison on corruption convictions unrelated to Katrina.

It’s worth recalling how in the storm’s aftermath, Nagin went on Oprah Winfrey’s program to claim that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing Katrina evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Almost all of those claims were untrue: The mayor was winging it on national television, and smearing his city in the process. The Fox program alluded to some of Nagin’s exaggerations.

An exception to the media’s sidestepping was a segment Saturday on NPR’s On the Media show. The segment noted the flawed reporting, but didn’t much explore why or how it occurred.

In her introduction, co-host Brooke Gladstone said of journalists covering the storm’s aftermath:

“They didn’t always speak fact. While covering Katrina’s horrific aftermath, the media often perpetuated myths about what was going on in the streets and the gathering places for the displaced, like the Superdome in New Orleans.”

The broad effect, of the exaggerated reporting, she said, was to paint “an apocalyptic picture that never matched reality.”

Her observations were a sequeway to an extended conversation with James A. Cobb Jr., the lawyer who won acquittals in 2007 of Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of a nursing home in suburban New Orleans where 35 old people drowned in floodwaters released by the collapsed levees.

The Manganos both were charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty.

Before the storm hit, the Manganos had decided it was safer to hunker down and not evacuate their frail and bedridden charges — and they were pilloried by the media when word of the deaths of their elderly charges began to circulate.

WJC

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About that Hearst quote on public’s fondness for entertainment

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 20, 2015 at 6:45 am

“It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information.”

Hearst before the war

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So declared New York Journal in a lengthy editorial (see below) published November 8, 1896, at the first anniversary of William Randolph Hearst’s taking over the once-moribund daily.

During that period, the editorial claimed, the Journal made enormous circulation gains — from 77,230 to 417,821, daily, and from 54,308 to 351,751, Sunday.

“What has been done in one year,” the Journal declared, “is a promise of what will be done in the next.”

The first-anniversary editorial and its self-congratulatory tone have long been forgotten. But its claim that the public is “more fond of entertainment than it is of information” has lived on as evidence of Hearst’s supposed inclination to treat his newspapers as platforms of frivolity and exaggeration.

Such characterizations are to be found in more than a few books that address or refer to Hearstian journalism.

For example, Gerald Baldasty presented the fragment “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” as a stand-alone sentence in E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers. So, too, did Louis Pizzitola in Hearst Over Hollywood. Donald A. Ritchie included the excerpt in American Journalists: Getting the Story, as did both George Sullivan in Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars and Samantha Barbas in her biography about Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.18.20 AM

The first-anniversary editorial

Michael Schudson included the full quotation in Discovering the News, and cited as his source W.A. Swanberg, who excerpted  a few passages from the Journal’s first-anniversary editorial in Citizen Hearst, a notably dreadful biography.

The first-anniversary editorial, which carried the headline “One Year’s Progress,” was unsigned; so it may not have been Hearst’s writing at all (but in that case, he surely would have approved its content before publication).

What’s more important is that the editorial was no endorsement of news-as-entertainment, no embrace of the primacy of superficial and trivial content. To describe it as such is to misrepresent and err: Hearst, or whoever wrote the editorial, was not extolling frivolity in his newspapers.

Far from it.

The editorial staked a claim to seriousness of purpose. It did not diminish the importance of news and newsgathering but rather embraced those aims, as these excerpts make clear (my additional commentary is italicized):

  • “The Journal has made it its business to reach out for news wherever it is to be had, considering neither precedent, difficulty, nor cost.” Indeed, a little-recognized hallmark of Hearst’s journalism of the mid- and late-1890s was his willingness to devote substantial sums to cover far-flung news events.
  • “When the ordinary news channels are blocked or inadequate, the Journal dispatches it own correspondents to the points, however distant, where the news is to be obtained, and even presses monarchs and statesmen into its service. And these dignitaries are often gracefully obliging.” The “dignitaries” sometimes would reply with a few sentences to the Journal’s cabled requests for comment about political or military developments abroad.
  • “The Cuban War [the rebellion that began in 1895 and gave rise to the Spanish-American War of 1898] … engaged the lively interest of the people of the United States. So the Journal sent correspondents to the island, among them Mr. Murat Halstead [then a 66-year-old eminence grise among American journalists] and General Bradley Johnson [formerly a Confederate field officer]. This paper was the first to get a reporter through the lines to the [Cuban] insurgents and give their side a hearing.” In December 1896, the Journal recruited the writer Richard Harding Davis and the artist Frederic Remington  to go to Cuba and meet up with the insurgents. The intended rendezvous never happened, but the assignment did give rise to the apocryphal tale of Hearst’s vowing to Remington that he would “furnish the war” with Spain.

The editorial’s most-quoted passage — that “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” — was preceded by a prideful recitation of the Journal’s enterprise during the previous 12 months. That portion of the editorial read:

“At the Czar’s coronation [in May 1896] the Journal was specially represented in Moscow by Mr. Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Julian Ralph [who reported from abroad for many years] is our resident correspondent in London. Edgar Saltus, Stephen Crane, Julian Hawthorne, Edward W. Townsend and other authors of fame act as reporters or contributors when the need arises. No other journal in the United States includes in its staff a tenth of the number of writers of reputation and talent. It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information. In short, during the past year we have been publishing a first-rate, all-round newspaper that has given a history of the world’s most important events each day ….”

So the context for the popular passage about the public’s fondness for entertainment is in fact an unambiguous statement about the importance of reporting the news with skill and talent.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, the editorial writer may have invoked “entertainment” not in the word’s light-hearted sense but to suggest the pleasure readers derived from the works of some of the leading authors of the late 19th century. Such an interpretation certainly offers itself, given the editorial’s context and content.

But why is any of this of importance now?

After all, the quotation isn’t as well-known, or invoked as often, as “furnish the war.” But it still resonates and still circulates — as suggested by the sneering essay published a month ago by Salon.

The essay was, as I noted then, “a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.” It closed with a slightly altered version of the passage from the Journal’s editorial:

“Said William Randolph Hearst: ‘The public is even more fond of entertainment than information.’ Boy, was he right.”

So the quotation has currency, serving as inaccurate shorthand for the superficial character of Hearst’s journalism. But the Journal of the mid- and late-1890s wasn’t that.

It was flamboyant and indulged heartily in self-promotion. It inspired “yellow journalism,” a sneer coined in 1897 by an embittered rival editor in New York City.

But Hearst’s journalism also was aggressive, searching, and fairly well-funded. As Hearst’s most even-handed biographer, David Nasaw, wrote in his 2000 work, The Chief:

““Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper [was] outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Nasaw was referring to the Journal of 1895-96.

In months that followed, the newspaper became even more assertive and exceptional as it staked out and pursued an activist model of participatory journalism. The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigmsthe “journalism of action” emphasized agency and engagement and sought to expand the norms of newsgathering.

The Journal argued that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence,” as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

The “journalism of action” did not valorize a light-hearted approach to the news. Rather, the Journal said, the “journalism of action” represented “the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.”

WJC

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The Woodward, Bernstein stories that ‘toppled’ Nixon: And they were?

In Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Reviews, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 19, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Media myths sometimes make appearances in odd and baffling ways. As non-sequiturs, even.

Take, for example, this pithy mischaracterization of Watergate, offered a number of years ago by the New York media critic, Michael Wolff:

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon’s tapes got Nixon

“The Washington Post didn’t like [Richard] Nixon — and because of that bad blood we got Watergate.”

As I pointed out soon after Wolff’s observation was posted at Newser.com, such an interpretation is absurd. Nixon and the Post may not have much liked each other, but bad blood had nothing to do with how the Watergate scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 was the culmination not of the Post’s reporting but of the collective investigative efforts by a variety of agencies and entities, including bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon’s release of the telltale evidence of Watergate — the secret tape recordings he had made of private conversations in the Oval Office.

The so-called “smoking gun tape” captured Nixon obstructing justice by approving a plan to divert the FBI investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.

If not for evidence of criminality captured on the tapes, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal.

Which brings us to the Christian Science Monitor’s review of Being Nixon: A Man Divided, a new biography by Evan Thomas. The review was posted online the other day and contained this erroneous and baffling statement:CSM small logo_65x45

“Even the Woodward and Bernstein stories in The Washington Post that toppled Nixon, bolstered by the subsequent best-selling book and Robert Redford movie (‘All the President’s Men’), are, for many current readers, as remote as D-Day or Pearl Harbor.”

The “toppled” passage is erroneous because the reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post assuredly did not bring down Nixon. Woodward, in fact, has insisted on that point from time to time: For example, he told an interviewer in 2004:

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

The “toppled” passage is baffling because Thomas makes no such claim in his book. Indeed, he seems careful not to indulge in media-driven myths. (As I noted at the time at Media Myth Alert, Thomas’ 2010 book, The War Lovers, repeated one of American journalism’s best-known myths, the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.)

According to the book’s index, “Woodward” is mentioned on six pages in Being Nixon; “Bernstein” appears on four pages. None of those pages contains the mythical claim that their reporting forced Nixon’s resignation. (“Topple” or “toppled” appear not at all in the book.)

So it is rather baffling that the Monitor’s review would state that claim so matter-of-factly. It’s not as if the book’s content led the reviewer astray.

Moreover, it is revealing and instructive to consider what were the most important Watergate articles by Woodward and Bernstein.

I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary [at the Democratic headquarters]. The Post was the first news organization to establish a connection between the burglars and the  White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds … were used to fund the break-in, the first to implicate the former attorney general John Mitchell in the scandal, and the first to link [senior Nixon aide H.R.] Haldeman to Watergate.”

But those articles, separately or collectively, were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency. They weren’t “stories … that toppled Nixon.”

In any case, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting notably failed to disclose what were decisive elements of the scandal — the Nixon administration’s efforts to cover up the crimes of Watergate and the existence of the secret White House tapes.

WJC

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No, ‘Salon’ — Hearst’s yellow journalism didn’t cause war with Spain

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

In a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Salon indulges in the hoary media myth that Hearst’s “yellow journalism” provoked war with Spain in 1898.

Salon’s essay was posted today beneath the headline: “Donald Trump’s third-rate ego monument: The billionaire wanna-be president who makes Trump look like a chump.”

Wasn't Heast's war

Wasn’t Heast’s war

As the headline suggests, the essay is no subtle or thoughtful treatment of Hearst. It reflects none of the sophistication and insight of Hearst’s most recent and skilled biographers, David Nasaw (who wrote The Chief in 2000) and Kenneth Whyte (author of The Uncrowned King in 2008).

Significantly, the Salon essay errs in claiming that Hearst’s flamboyant journalism of the late 19th century brought on the Spanish-American War, declaring:

“Headline grabbing was, literally, Hearst’s business. His combustible personality had already been responsible for the ‘yellow journalism’ that got the U.S. into war in Cuba in 1898. Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Before unpacking that mythical claim, let’s briefly consider the defining features of Hearst’s journalism of the late 1890s — and how and why it came to be called “yellow journalism.”

Hearst, who was 32 when he came to New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and acquired a moribund daily, the Journal, infused his journalism with self-promotion, as did many fin-de-siecle American newspapers.

What set Hearst apart from his many competitors in New York was a willingness to spend generously in news-gathering and an inclination to go bold in news-presentation: His Journal was typographically more engaging and experimental than its staid rival newspapers.

Jail-breaking journalism

Activist, and bold in presentation

Moreover, Hearstian journalism of the late 1890s was animated by activism — by a notion that newspapers had an obligation to do more than comment and criticize, but to inject themselves in the issues of the day and try to correct the wrongs in public life, to fill the voids created by government inaction or incompetence.

The “journalism of action,” it was called. And it borrowed from “government by journalism,” which William T. Stead advanced in Britain in the 1880s.

Hearst’s “journalism of action,” as I pointed out in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, was “a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news.”

The most dramatic and celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” was the jailbreak in Havana in 1897 that freed a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. A reporter for Hearst’s Journal organized the escape of Cisneros, who was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York, where Hearst organized a rapturous reception for her in midtown Manhattan.

Hearst shook up New York City journalism, and his foes chafed at his aggressive brand of journalism. Some of them openly hoped that the young publisher would spend himself into bankruptcy. In early 1897, one of the rivals came up with “yellow journalism” as a jeering rejection of what Hearst was then calling “the new journalism.” The sneer “yellow journalism” stuck; even Hearst’s Journal came to embrace the term.

But by no means did “yellow journalism” cause, foment, or otherwise bring about the war in 1898, a brief conflict that confirmed America as a global power.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press “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” Hearst’s Journal.

Assertions that the yellow press caused the war, I wrote, “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, where an islandwide rebellion had flared in early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the armed challenge to Spanish rule, Madrid sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and its generals imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” by which thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — were herded into garrison towns so they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy gave rise to much suffering and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation, creating a humanitarian disaster on Cuba that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” as I wrote in Yellow Journalism.

The desperate conditions on Cuba in 1897 and early 1898 were frequent topics of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s Journal. His newspaper reported on “reconcentration” but in no way created the policy’s devastating effects.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by the “reconcentration” policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, were pivotal in the American decision to go to war over Cuba in 1898; the content of the yellow press was irrelevant.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“If the yellow press did foment the war, researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time. But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the [William] McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor. It was regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain.”

A few years after the war, the Journal pointedly scoffed at claims that it fomented the war in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits. “Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal noted in 1902, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

WJC

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‘SF Examiner’ marks 150th anniversary with dose of media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 11, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The San Francisco Examiner marked its 150th anniversary today with a dash of media myth about its most famous owner, William Randolph Hearst, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Media baron Hearst

Hearst: Started with the Examiner

The newspaper, which has survived near-death encounters in its turbulent past, asserted the following in an online overview of its history:

“Led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, newspapers were largely responsible for creating the Spanish-American War through the birth of yellow journalism.”

But how that worked, how the newspapers created or fomented that war, was left unsaid, as was the nature of the contribution of “yellow journalism.”

For that matter, “yellow journalism” was left undefined.

But the short answer is that newspapers — and yellow journalism — were not “responsible,” largely or otherwise, for the war in which the United States crushed Spanish military forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, an outcome that signaled America’s emergence as a global power.

As I discussed in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer — the leading exemplars of the yellow press — exerted very modest agenda-setting influence in the run-up to the war.SFExaminer loho_Twitter

I noted:

“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” an American warship that blew up while on a friendly visit to Havana in mid-February 1898.

The destruction of the Maine — in a harbor under Spanish control — was a trigger for the war.

But if newspapers had been responsible for the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers [in the administration of President William McKinley] nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote Yellow Journalism.

So what, then, were the proximate causes of war in 1898?

Fundamentally, the war was the consequence of a three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cuban insurgents, who in 1895 had launched a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, would accept nothing short of independence from Madrid. Spain, for domestic and economic reasons, was adamant not to grant Cuban independence — and sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island in an attempt to put down the rebellion. And the United States had become deeply frustrated with Spain’s inability to bring an end to a conflict on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Not only did Spain send thousands of troops to Cuba, it sought to deprive the rebels of the aid and support of non-combattants by herding  women, children, and old men into reconcentration centers. The Cuban non-combattants suffered grievously; tens of thousands of them died from starvation and illness in the reconcentration centers.

By 1898, a humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba.

The diplomatic standoff, and the effects of Spain’s reconcentration policy, were the real reasons for the war.

Not Hearst. Not Pulitzer. Not “yellow journalism.”

As for “yellow journalism”: The term was coined in 1897 and it came to represent a flamboyant genre defined by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call frequent attention to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

It was, as I noted in Yellow Journalism, a genre that scarcely could be “called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

WJC

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Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Newspapers, Reviews, Spanish-American War on June 9, 2015 at 9:31 am

National Geographic’s docudrama last night about the rivalry between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer was, predictably, long on stereotype, highly selective, and misleading in its superficial treatment of its protagonists.

The show, one of eight installments in a not-so-acclaimed series called “American Genius,” was cartoonish in depicting Hearst as a callow and strutting rich kid, extravagant with money, and eager to imitate the techniques of the older and, at least according to National Geographic’s program, more virtuous Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer bust

Pulitzer: Mean-spirited ways ignored

Hearst, the son of a millionaire miner turned U.S. senator, was 32 when he came to New York from California in 1895, a time when the city’s journalism had gone stagnant. Its leading publishers and editors were aging, infirm, or absentee. Or in Pulitzer’s case, all of the above.

Hearst promptly shook up New York’s journalism establishment, and earned its enmity in doing so.

But National Geographic offered little discussion about the seismic character of Hearst’s entry into New York, or how success in New York was crucial to his goal of building a lasting media empire.

Significantly, the docudrama failed to mention a key component in the supposed Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry: Pulitzer was almost entirely absent from New York journalism after 1891 — years before Hearst came to Gotham to acquire and run the New York Journal. The rivalry was not directly between the owners, but between their newspapers.

Likewise, the program made no mention at all about how Pulitzer tried to run his New York World remotely, through a steady stream of telegrams and letters sent to his editors and business managers from Maine, Georgia, Europe, or wherever the peripatetic Pulitzer sought comfort as his health worsened and his eyesight failed.

Similarly, there was no mention that Pulitzer was a harsh and mean-spirited taskmaster who often treated his senior staff like so many incompetents. He drove away talent as much as Hearst recruited it from the World. Or as National Geographic put it, stole from the World.

Perhaps most important of the program’s flaws was its silence about the activist concept that inspired and animated Hearst’s journalism in the mid- and late-1890s.

Contrary to the program’s frequent claims, Hearst was not so much an imitator of Pulitzer as the adapter of a theory of participatory journalism advanced by William T. Stead in Britain in the mid-1880s. “Government by journalism,” Stead called it, arguing that newspapers had a central role in guiding civic life, given their presumed capacity to frame and shape public opinion.

Hearst clearly borrowed from Stead’s “government by journalism” in pursuing a model his newspaper called the “journalism of action.” It was a breathtaking vision of participatory journalism that went well beyond the stunts (such as Nellie Bly’s race round the world in 1888) organized by Pulitzer’s newspaper.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “journalism of action” envisioned that newspapers should and could go beyond merely gathering, publishing, and commenting on the news. Instead, I noted, the “journalism of action” asserted that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

evangelina_oct10_trim

‘Jailbreaking journalism,’ 1897

There was no more dramatic or celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” than the case of “jailbreaking journalism” in 1897.

That was when Karl Decker, a reporter Hearst dispatched to Cuba, helped to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner jailed in Havana for nearly 15 months, during the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the critical support of a clandestine smuggling network operating in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail. She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of a Cuban-American banker, then smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City.

There, Hearst organized a rapturous welcome for Cisneros, who knew few words of English and seemed overwhelmed by the reception.

The National Geographic show had the Cisneros character speaking fairly fluent accented English. And it characterized the jailbreak superficially, as simply “a way [for Hearst] to get his readers interested in the rebels’ cause against Spain.” It was that, but much more: the rescue, the Journal declared, was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement” of participatory journalism.

It proved to be the zenith of the “journalism of action,” a flamboyant if now little-remembered paradigm of newsgathering and newsmaking.

Interestingly, the small stable of experts National Geographic recruited for its show did not include the leading authorities on Hearst — biographers David Nasaw, author of The Chief, and Kenneth Whyte, who wrote The Uncrowned KingBoth books are outstanding.

Had it tapped such experts, the program might have sidestepped such inaccurate claims as Hearst’s having “had more money than God.” Hearst was wealthy, but his widowed mother imposed restraints on his spending, as Nasaw describes in some detail in The Chief.

Hearst’s resources were not unlimited, National Geographic’s claims notwithstanding.

In fact, representatives of the World and the Journal met to explore jointly raising prices, to rebuild revenues depleted by coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

They were effectively blocked from doing so because Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, had lowered the price of his newspaper to one cent from three cents. No way would the World and the Journal leave the one-cent market to Ochs, who came to New York in 1896. So the World and the Journal kept their cover price at a penny, which meant long-term strains on resources and revenues.

About that, of course, the docudrama made no mention.

WJC

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Who chased Nixon from office? Not Woodward, Bernstein

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 2, 2015 at 2:16 pm

The National Journal offered an intriguing discussion yesterday about what it called “the background briefing racket,” in which government officials meet with reporters to “spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all ‘on background'” — meaning they aren’t linked by name to what they said.

It is a racket that allows officials to evade accountability.

But what most interested Media Myth Alert was this passage in the article, written by veteran Washington journalist Ron Fournier:

Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

The ambitious Mark Felt

“When reporters call the shots, anonymous sources are vital to uncovering government secrets and wrongdoing (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office).”

Woodward and Bernstein chased Nixon out of office?

Not quite.

Woodward and Bernstein were the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate scandal of 1972-74, but their work hardly can be said to have forced Nixon to resign the presidency.

As Woodward, himself, has said:

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

And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the complexity and dimension of Watergate “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 approving a plan to deflect the FBI’s investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the foiled burglary in mid-June 1974 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The Post did not disclose the existence of the White House tapes. Nor did the Post reveal the White House coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

So to assert, even in an off-handed way, that Woodward and Bernstein were pivotal or central to chasing Nixon from the White House is to misread history and indulge in one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths.

A couple of other points about the parenthetical phrase, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office.”

Bernstein never met Mark Felt during Watergate scandal, nor for many years afterward. Felt was the secret source and senior FBI official known as “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward periodically conferred in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia.

But not until 2008, late in Felt’s life, was Bernstein introduced to him.

Also, Felt was no whistleblower, not in a high-minded, altruistic sense. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out almost 10 years ago in a review of Woodward’s book about Felt, Watergate represented “the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own.” Meaning Felt’s own kind of “background briefing racket.”

Max Holland’s book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, argues persuasively that Felt was no principled whistleblower.

He was driven by the internal struggle at the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover, who died in May 1972. Felt in leaking to Woodward sought to undercut the acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, and thereby enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position.

Self-advancement was his principal motive. He failed, and retired in 1973.

It deserves mentioning that Felt was no hero, no noble figure.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Felt authorized burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground. He was convicted in 1980 of felony charges related to the break-ins, but was pardoned the following year by President Ronald Reagan.

WJC

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No, Politico: WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 27, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Politico yesterday posted an intriguing if flawed account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Intriguing because of such nuggets as J.Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Bradlee as “a colossal liar.” Hoover was the FBI’s long-serving director who died in 1972.

Flawed because the Politico writeup referred to Bradlee as “a man whose Washington Post brought down a president.”

Hardly: Bringing down Nixon wasn’t the Post’s doing.

Not even Bradlee, who died last October, embraced that notion. And most principals at the Post during Watergate rejected that superficial interpretation as well.

Notably, Bradlee pointed out in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972. The breakin touched off the scandal — and the country’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

“Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon”: That’s a tidy rebuttal to the extravagant claims made about the Post and its Watergate reporting.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s corrupt presidency is 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 Watergate coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal, modest at best. Hardly decisive.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, essentially said as much in 1997. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said then. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward concurred, if in earthier terms. He told an interviewer in 2006:

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

It is revealing to recall the major Watergate developments that the Post did not disclose.
It failed to disclose the White House cover up of crimes associated with the breakin.
It likewise failed to reveal the existence of the White House tapes. Those disclosures came in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.
Interestingly, Bradlee had an important part in the Post’s failing to disclose the existence of the tapes.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before Senate select committee made their existence known.

According to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and they missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

WJC

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Disputed? Use it anyway: NYTimes invokes Cronkite-Johnson myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Quotes, Television on January 24, 2015 at 9:13 am
LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Nothing to say about Cronkite

It’s disputed, but what the heck?

Use it anyway.

That, essentially, is how New York Times today presents the mythical tale of President Lyndon Johnson’s purported reaction to anchorman Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment of the Vietnam War in 1968: The tale is “oft-cited if disputed,” the Times says in an article about a Univision journalist — but it repeats the dubious tale nonetheless.

As if there’s no need to let a media myth stand in the way of a useful anecdote.

The “oft-cited” anecdote centers around Cronkite’s claim, offered February 27, 1968, at the close of a special report on CBS, that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out of the conflict.

Supposedly, Johnson watched the program at the White House and, upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” observation, snapped off the television set and told an aide or aides:

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

Or something to that effect: Versions vary markedly as to what the president purportedly said.

Here’s how the Times presented the anecdote today, embedded in a report about the influence of Jorge Ramos, news anchor for the Spanish-language Univision network:

“‘Remember what L.B.J. said, “When you lose Walter Cronkite, you’ve lost the war”?’ said Matthew Dowd, a campaign adviser to George W. Bush, recalling the oft-cited if disputed story that President Lyndon B. Johnson said he lost ‘middle America’ when Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War. Among Latino voters, Mr. Ramos has the sort of influence and audience that Cronkite had more broadly among Americans in his day.”

Let’s unpack that myth-freighted paragraph.

First, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired. This is crucial because the power of the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote rests on the immediate and visceral effect that anchorman’s assessment supposedly had on the president. It was, supposedly, an epiphany for Johnson: He suddenly understood the futility of pressing the war in Vietnam (even though U.S. combat troops remained in Vietnam until 1973).

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson at the time was not at the White House.

He was in Austin, Texas, attending a birthday party for a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally. And about the moment Cronkite was on television intoning his “mired in stalemate” remark, Johnson was making light of Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Johnson on that occasion (see photo, above) had nothing to say about Cronkite.

Second, it is impossible to square Johnson’s purportedly downbeat reaction — “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” — with his sharply more hawkish remarks made at that time about Vietnam.

Just hours before the Cronkite program aired Johnson, delivered a rousing speech in Dallas, in which he cast the war effort in Churchillian terms, saying at one point:

“There will be blood, sweat and tears shed.”

Johnson also declared in the Dallas speech, “I do not believe that America will ever buckle” in pursuit of its objectives in Vietnam. “I believe that every American will answer now for his future and for his children’s future. I believe he will say, ‘I did not buckle when the going got tough.’”

He further said:

“Thousands of our courageous sons and millions of brave South Vietnamese have answered aggression’s onslaught and they have answered it with one strong and one united voice. ‘No retreat,’ they have said. Free men will never bow to force and abandon their future to tyranny. That must be our answer, too, here at home. Our answer here at home, in every home, must be: No retreat from the responsibilities of the hour of the day.”

It is inconceivable that Johnson’s assertive, “no retreat” views about the war would have swung so immediately, and so dramatically, upon hearing the opinion of a television news anchor.

An opinion that was hardly exceptional, novel, or shocking in late February 1968.

By the time of Cronkite’s report, “stalemate” had become an unremarkable — and not uncommon — way to characterize the war in Vietnam.

The Times, for example, had invoked “stalemate” months before Cronkite’s television report, notably in a front-page news analysis published August 7, 1967. In it, the Times observed that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Vietnam, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The analysis was published on the Times front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

Moreover, even if Johnson later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, it represented no epiphany. If the president later heard — or heard about — Cronkite’s analysis, he didn’t take it to heart in his public statements.

Not long after the Cronkite program, Johnson was in Minneapolis where he delivered a hawkish, lectern-pounding speech, urging a “total national effort” to win the war in Vietnam.

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice,” Johnson said in the speech, in which he disparaged foes of the war as wanting the country to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

So the Times would do well to offer a correction or clarification: The Cronkite-Johnson tale certainly is “oft-cited,” but it is more problematic than merely “disputed.”

It is illusory. It is mythical.

WJC

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