W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: A hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, but the emphasis is misplaced.

To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect. The underlying history is dubious, which makes The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a distraction that inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

 

Advertisements

NYT turns obscure statement into prominent blurb to tout its Pentagon Papers reporting

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm

“The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The New York Times has turned recently to that expansive claim, most conspicuously in a full-page advertisement, to suggest the rival Washington Post once praised the Times for disclosing the Pentagon Papers.

The quotation has been interpreted as the Times’ giving the Washington Post a thumb in the eye amid the much-ballyhooed limited release of Steven Spielberg‘s cinematic hagiography, The Post.

The movie dramatizes the Washington Post’s secondary role in reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — a focus surely irritating to the Times. (The Times’ review of the film observed that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”)

The quotation attributed to the Washington Post and seeming to commend the Times appears as a front-cover blurb for a new book that brings together the Times’ award-winning articles about the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s once-secret history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The quotation was displayed prominently in a full-page advertisement the Times published the other day (see image nearby) to call attention to the book. The quotation also appears at a Web page promoting the book at the Times’ online store.

But when did the Washington Post make that statement?

Not in the aftermath of the Times’ disclosures of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, as the blurb may suggest: A search of the full-text ProQuest database containing Washington Post content from 1877 through 1997 turned up no such statement.

Front cover blurb

A similar — but somewhat less assertive — statement appeared in the Washington Post in June 2011, in an 850-word article about the government’s declassification of the Pentagon Papers. That article was retrieved from the Nexis database and from a search on Google. Its opening sentence reads:

“The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

As “one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The Washington Post’s report also noted that declassification came “40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times.” But the article did not commend the Times for the revelations — an interpretation that’s certainly suggested by the blurb in the ad and on the book cover.

I asked the Times’ communications staff about the derivation of the quotation and was directed to this site, a rudimentary searchable archive the Washington Post set up, probably in 2011, to permit readers to review the declassified Pentagon Papers. An introductory statement posted at the site said:

“Four decades after the most significant leaks of classified material in American history, the Pentagon Papers have remained classified — until now. Read the full archive of the declassified documents as released by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

So that’s the source of the statement that the Times has invoked as a money quote to tout and recall its enterprise on the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post said it, but clearly in a trivial and off-hand way. It was no prominent pronouncement. Or even a passage in a news article or commentary.

It was made obscurely, and it said nothing about the Times’ enterprise.

The Times’ turning the obscure statement into a prominent blurb underscores that its rivalry with the Washington Post remains keen. Of late, the Times has seemed eager to direct attention to its disclosures about the Pentagon Papers, in light of the favorable reviews of Spielberg’s movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post was undeniably beaten on the Pentagon Papers story in 1971; it started printing excerpts of its own after the federal government enjoined the Times from publishing reports it had prepared drawn from the secret history. Soon after its excerpts began appearing, the Post was similarly restrained by a federal appeals court.

Both newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court which, at the end of June 1971, invalidated the government’s restraint in a 6-to-3 decision and the injunctions were lifted.

The Times’ reporting on the Pentagon Papers won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Post won no Pulitzers that year.

Writing at the “Deadline Hollywood” entertainment news site the other day, Jeremy Gerard discussed the Times’ recent full-page book ad, calling it “a puckish thumb-in-the-eye to the competition” and noting that the “promo is topped with a money quote – ‘The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’ – from, that’s right, the Washington Post.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews

In Cinematic treatments, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Mark Felt is a movie worse than its many negative reviews.

It’s a tedious biopic about Watergate’s most famous anonymous source that fails to offer anything close to a coherent interpretation of America’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

The subtitle asserts that Felt — celebrated as Bob Woodward‘s highly placed “Deep Throat” source during Watergate — was the “man who brought down the White House.” But that exceedingly dubious claim is not  much addressed — let alone supported — in this headache-inducing mess of a movie.

No one who sits through Mark Felt will come away with a cogent understanding about Watergate and what really brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

And that perhaps is its most acute failing.

The movie offers a badly mashed-up timeline of Watergate; suggests that the Nixon White House coverup of the scandal nearly succeeded when it was amateurish and wobbly, and provides no sense at all about the array of forces that closed in on Nixon. The movie is about a career G-man (played grimly by Liam Neeson) who leaked to the press, ostensibly to protect his beloved FBI from Nixon and his skulking, disreputable top aides.

Woodward’s character, played by Julian Morris, is amusingly callow and in a couple of brief appearances comes across as more stenographer than searching journalist. Mark Felt grants considerably more face time to Sandy Smith of Time magazine’s Washington bureau, a veteran journalist to whom Felt also leaked.

But as the credits roll, it’s not hard to think that director Peter Landesman missed an opportunity to shoot a far better movie about Felt.

Landesman’s portrayal notwithstanding, Felt was no heroic whistleblower. He was no noble character; the far better movie would have depicted Felt more accurately as a cunning G-man not above breaking the law.

The far better movie would have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt for a short time wielded at the FBI.

The far better movie would have been developed around Felt’s criminal misconduct as the agency’s acting associate director, authorizing illegal breakins — known as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of Weather Underground fugitives.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for illegal entries and searches in New York City and Union City, N.J. Indicted with him for conspiring to violate civil rights of American citizens were former FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray and Edward S. Miller, former head of the agency’s counterintelligence unit.

Felt and Miller were convicted, ordered to pay fines, but pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Charges against Gray were dropped.

Felt died in 2008, a few years after outing himself as Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source during Watergate.

The “black bag jobs” were conducted in late 1972 and early 1973, roughly the time Felt was speaking with Woodward of the Washington Post about Watergate. Felt and Miller later said the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

Landesman’s Felt doesn’t ignore the FBI’s illegal activities, but seems to excuse them because the Weather Underground’s bombings were increasingly worrisome. The radical group detonated timebombs in washrooms at the Capitol in March 1971, the Pentagon in May 1972, and State Department in January 1975.

A parallel track of the far better movie would have explored but censured the Weather Underground, a violent, far-left terrorist group led by the likes of Bernadine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers. They escaped  federal prosecution for their most serious crimes because crucial evidence against them had been gathered through illegal telephone surveillance.

Dohrn and Ayers became professors, he at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she at Northwestern University Law School. They were early supporters of Barack Obama as he began his climb from Chicago to the presidency. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from Ayers, calling him “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”

The far better movie also would have zeroed in on Felt’s efforts to undermine Gray during the so-called FBI war of succession following J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972.

By leaking to Woodward and Sandy Smith, Felt sought to discredit Gray and thus enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, an interpretation Max Holland persuasively presented in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

Felt lost out and retired in 1973, the year before Nixon resigned.

A far better movie could have been made. The material was there. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding and confusing cinematic treatment that’s been aptly rewarded with modest box office receipts.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Gushing about ‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie — and ignoring the myths it propelled

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 18, 2016 at 6:32 am

ATPM movie posterWhen it was released 40 years ago this month, the cinematic version of the Watergate book  All the President’s Men was the topic of soaring reviews.

Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that “the real excitement of ‘All The President’s Men’ is in watching two comparatively inexperienced reporters stumble onto the story of their lives and develop it triumphantly, against all odds.” He was referring to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were played in the movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.

The Long Island newspaper Newsday gushed even more, declaring:

“’All the President’s Men’ is a terrific movie – the best film about newspaper reporters ever made, one of the most enjoyable action pictures you’ll see this year and a classic example of how to make an important social and political statement within the framework of an unpretentious detective story whose revelations speak for themselves.”

And so it went for a movie that won four Academy Awards but lost the best-picture Oscar to Rocky.

The gushing for All the President’s Men resumed this month as a variety of media outlets took the occasion of the 40th anniversary to celebrate the film anew.

Michael Gaynor of Washingtonian magazine put together a lengthy oral history about All the President’s Men, which he hailed as the “most defining movie of Washington.” Meanwhile, Newsday posted its 1976 review online.

In a lengthy retrospective for the Los Angeles Review of Books,the associate producer of All the President’s Men, Jon Boorstin, called the movie “a miracle.” He further described it as an “impossible conjunction of talent and opportunity, collaboration and ego, trust, power, and luck. And then more luck.”

And the Washington Post — inclined as it is to bouts of self-absorption — published at its online site a fawning essay that gushed at the granular level, telling us about Woodward and Bernstein’s favorite scenes in All the President’s Men.

What went unmentioned in the anniversary’s nostalgic glow was the movie’s significant contributions to the mythology of Watergate, notably the notion that Woodward and Bernstein‘s reporting — the movie’s centerpiece — brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The movie portrayed Woodward and Bernstein as central and essential to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

They weren’t.

That they were is a mythical, media-centric trope that emerged long ago as the dominant narrative of Watergate, the principal way of understanding the scandal.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth, a simplistic version that sweeps away the complexities of Watergate, leaving an easy-to-grasp explanation for Nixon’s downfall in August 1974.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men, as I noted in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, promoted this version — what I called an “unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.

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,” I wrote.

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions in fact “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I wrote, “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.

The movie contributed to Watergate’s mythology in another way: It brought into the vernacular what has become the scandal’s most memorable line — “follow the money.

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

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

Except that it really wasn’t.

The line was written into All the President’s Men for dramatic effect  and spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook who played a marvelously conflicted, raspy, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

“Deep Throat” the source never told Woodward to “follow the money.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The hero-journalist trope: Watergate’s go-to mythical narrative

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced America’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

And yet, because Watergate was such an intricate thicket of lies, deceit, and criminality — and because it unfolded more than 40 years ago — a sure understanding of the scandal can be defiantly elusive. Collective memory about the many lines of investigation that unwound Watergate and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency has inevitably grown faint.

What endures is the heroic-journalist trope, Watergate’s dominant popular narrative, which rests on the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s criminal misconduct and forced his resignation. It has become the go-to explanation about how Watergate was exposed, and it is an endlessly appealing interpretation.

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

Which takes us to a movie review posted today at the online site of WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

The review discusses the perversely named Truth, a new motion picture that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used fraudulent documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. (Because it stars Robert Redford in Rather’s role, Truth has invited comparisons — not all of them favorable — to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film in which Redford played Woodward of the Post.) 

The WTOP reviewer has little truck with the Truth story line, saying it “would have been far better … to paint the characters as fallen figures who admit they screwed up, rather than misunderstood scapegoats who were taken down by The Man.”

Fair enough. But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and declares:

“If Woodward and Bernstein ran the story too early — before they had actual proof from reliable sources — Nixon would have stayed in office, the Watergate would simply be a fancy hotel, and ‘All the President’s Men’ would not exist.”

The reference to “the story” is puzzling, given that the reporting of Watergate went far beyond a single article in the Washington Post. The scandal produced extensive news reporting over many months, from the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington to the resignation of Nixon in August 1974, following disclosures that he had approved a plan to cover up the break-in.

And to assert that “Nixon would have stayed in office” if not for Woodward and Bernstein is to be decidedly in error — and to indulge in a powerful myth of American journalism.

It is a tempting trope, to be sure. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

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

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

He’s right: Woodward and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their reporting did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein did not break the most crucial stories of Watergate.

They did not, for example, disclose the extent to which the Nixon administration covered up of the crimes of Watergate. Nor did they reveal the existence of the secret White House audio tapes, the contents of which were decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The so-called “Smoking Gun” tape captured Nixon’s approving a plan on June 23, 1972, to divert the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. The tape’s release sealed the president’s fate.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his term.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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 that 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

More from Media Myth Alert:

William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Error, Furnish the war, Reviews on March 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

Citizen Hearst was a mostly unsatisfactory biography published in 1961 about media baron William Randolph Hearst. It was more caricature than revealing portrait.

Citizen HearstThe title, Citizen Hearst, has been reprised for documentary that opened in several theaters this week. The documentary — commissioned by the media company that Hearst founded 126 years ago — is no revealing portrait, either.

Hearst was an innovative yet often-contradictory figure, and this complexity is largely elusive in Citizen Hearst, an 84-minute film that had its Washington, D.C., debut screening last night at the Newseum. The director, Leslie Iwerks, introduced the film by saying it told “the wonderful Hearst story.”

The opening third of Citizen Hearst delivers a fast-paced if mostly shallow look at Hearst’s long career in journalism. After that, the film turns mostly gushy about the diversified media company that is Hearst Corp.

To its credit, Citizen Hearst steers largely clear of the myths that distort understanding of Hearst and his early, most innovative years in journalism.

His affable grandson, Will Hearst, is shown in the film scoffing at what may be the best-known anecdote in American journalism — that William Randolph Hearst vowed in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The anecdote is undocumented and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Citizen Hearst the documentary doesn’t embrace the warmongering myth (although former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is shown saying he was taught in school that Hearst practically brought on the Spanish-American War).

The documentary, however, fails to consider the innovative character of Hearst’s newspapers of the late 19th century.

It notably avoids discussing Hearst’s eye-opening brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

This ethos was a motivating force for one of the most exceptional and dramatic episodes in American journalism — the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

Cisneros

Evangelina Cisneros

A reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, supported by clandestine operatives in Havana and U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, broke Cisneros from jail in early October 1897.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of an American-educated Cuban banker (whom she married several months later). Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The Cisneros jailbreak was stunning manifestation of Hearst’s “journalism of action” and it offers rich material for a documentary. It was, as I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history.

It receives not a mention in Citizen Hearst.

The documentary presents only superficial consideration of Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — and avoids mentioning how he turned his newspapers into platforms to support those ambitions.

Hearst wanted to be president, and was a serious contender for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1904. He lost out to Alton Parker, a New York judge, who in turn was badly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Citizen Hearst presents the observations of no serious Hearst biographer: No David Nasaw, author of The Chief, an admirably even-handed biography published in 2000; no Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding work published in 2009 about Hearst’s s early career.

Instead, Dan Rather is shown speaking vaguely about Hearst’s journalism (“he played big”). Movie critic Leonard Maltin makes several appearances, discussing such topics as headline size in Hearst’s fin de siècle newspapers.

The documentary treats Helen Gurley Brown, she of Cosmopolitan fame, much like a rock star. And Hearst company officials are quoted often and sometimes at length.

HuffingtonPost was quite right in noting in a review posted Wednesday that the film turns into “something you’d expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst’s headquarters”  in New York.

It leaves you wondering how many people would pay to see it. Or why.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

‘Cronkite Moment’ morphing ‘into a general civic belief’? Why should it?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Television on September 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Robert MacNeil writes in today’s Washington Post that the presumptive power and influence of  Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, “has morphed into a general civic belief.”

Let’s hope not.

Let’s hope the opposite effect is becoming more pronounced — that Cronkite’s presumed influence is slowly being recognized for the myth that it is.

MacNeil, the former co-anchor of the PBS News Hour program, takes up the notion of Cronkite’s power to move national events in a review of the Cronkite biography that came out at the end of May.

The biography, written by Douglas Brinkley and titled Cronkite, appeared for a short time on the New York Times list of non-fiction best-sellers.  I found the book hagiographic, especially its treatment of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of late February 1968.

That was when Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might lead to a way out.

But as I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization was hardly novel and exerted little demonstrable effect on the policy or decisions of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The myth also has it that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary prompted Johnson not to seek reelection in 1968.

MacNeil in his review notes the doubts about whether Cronkite’s assessment exerted much influence on Johnson but asserts nonetheless the “idea [that it did] has morphed into a general civic belief.”

It’s regrettable that MacNeil didn’t pause to consider the implications of the morphing, or reflect on why the myth of the “Cronkite Moment” is so appealing and so eagerly retold, despite the considerable evidence that can be arrayed in debunking it.

Cronkite himself (until late in his life) rejected the notion that his “mired in stalemate” assessment was all that influential, likening the effect to that merely of a “straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Indeed, other news organizations in February 1968 were offering assessments far more pointed that Cronkite’s. For example, the Wall Street Journal said a few days before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed.”

National political figures likewise were expressing downbeat opinions about the war that month. George Romney, then a long-shot Republican candidate for president, declared in mid-February 1968:

“We haven’t been told the truth about Vietnam. They’re winning; we’re not winning: we’re losing, thus far.”

Such observations obviously were more emphatic than Cronkite’s tentative “mired in stalemate” assessment.

And yet, MacNeil in his review favorably notes a passage from Cronkite, that “America asked for truth about Vietnam, and Cronkite dutifully delivered.”

Americans in February 1968 had many sources other than Cronkite for analysis about Vietnam — analysis that was far sharper and far less equivocal.

WJC

Recent or related:

%d bloggers like this: