W. Joseph Campbell

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Murrow ‘risked his career to confront demagogic Joe McCarthy’? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post on July 1, 2017 at 3:01 pm

The sentiments may be noble but the claims — one of them, at least — are dubious.

‘Demagogic’ Joe McCarthy

So it is with a Washington Post commentary this weekend that makes mention of “men and women who defended this country and its values in other ways [than taking up arms]: people like Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster who risked his career to confront the demagogic Sen. Joe McCarthy; Harvey Milk, who helped pass gay rights legislation in San Francisco before he was assassinated; and Rosa Parks, whose courageous defiance was a spark for the civil rights movement, in which many were killed.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the reference to Murrow’s having risked his career in taking on McCarthy — a reference to the broadcaster’s half-hour television program, “See It Now,” in March 1954 that critically examined the senator’s communists-in-government witchhunt.

The show has long since become encrusted with media myth — namely that Murrow’s report exposed McCarthy’s demagoguery and abruptly ended his red-baiting ways.

The notion that Murrow’s career hung in the balance in taking on the bullying senator from Wisconsin was promoted in Good Night, and Good Luck, an overwrought cinematic account of the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation. But in reality, the risks to Murrow were scant by time he took on McCarthy in 1954.

By then, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (a second edition of which is out now), Murrow was quite safe.

Murrow

That’s because, as I write, Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and “did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

These journalists included the syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, who called out McCarthy’s exaggerations almost as soon as the senator began hurling accusations of communists infiltration of the State Department. That was in February 1950 — years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy.

Pearson certainly wasn’t a much-liked journalist; he was an aggressive, self-important muckraker whom media critic Jack Shafer once described as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story. Pearson, I note, was always “eager to inject himself as a participant in Washington’s political scene.”

But he caught on quickly to McCarthy’s excesses.

Pearson: McCarthy nemesis

I note in Getting It Wrong that “Pearson first wrote about McCarthy’s wild allegations on February 18, 1950, just days after McCarthy had begun raising them. Pearson called McCarthy the ‘harum-scarum’ senator,” and described how the allegations had been discredited years earlier, after having been raised by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Pearson wrote that “knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson also went after McCarthy for his tax troubles in Wisconsin and for a suspicious $10,000 payment from a government contractor. And he likened McCarthy and his tactics to 17th century witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

All of this angered the headstrong McCarthy who, at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, approached Pearson, placed a hand on the columnist’s arm and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The thuggish threat, I write, was a prelude to a brief but violent encounter at the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C.

The Sulgrave, which occupies a late Gilded Age, Beaux-Arts mansion at DuPont Circle, was in the 1950s a hush-hush meeting place for Washington socialites and powerbrokers. “The club prided itself on insuring privacy and permitted no photographers to enter,” I note.

In December 1950, a young socialite named Louise Tinsley (“Tinnie”) Steinman invited both Pearson and McCarthy to join her guests at a dinner-dance at the Sulgrave.

She seated the men at the same table and they traded insults throughout the evening. Pearson and McCarthy “are the two biggest billygoats in the onion patch, and when they began butting, all present knew history was being made,” Time magazine said about their encounter.

“As the evening ended,” I write, “McCarthy confronted Pearson in the Sulgrave’s coat check room. Accounts differ about what happened. Pearson said McCarthy pinned his arms to one side and kneed him twice in the groin. McCarthy said he slapped Pearson, hard, with his open hand. A third account, offered by a radio broadcaster friendly to McCarthy, said the senator slugged Pearson, a blow so powerful that it lifted Pearson three feet into the air.

“Senator Richard Nixon, who also was a guest at Tinnie Steinman’s party, intervened to break up the encounter.”

In his memoir RN, Nixon quoted McCarthy as saying:

“You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.”

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate not long afterward to assail Pearson in speeches that were unalloyed McCarthyism.

He denounced the columnist as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

McCarthy also aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., the principal sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program on NBC. McCarthy declared that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams [sic] hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

Adam Hat subsequently said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s radio show, citing “a planned change in advertising media for 1951.”

Pearson later claimed that losing the Adam Hat sponsorship cut his gross radio income to $100,000 from $250,000. “I suppose no one newspaperman suffered more economically than I did from Joe McCarthy,” he mused.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Post’s commentary would have been more apropos had it replaced Pearson for Murrow in saluting “men and women who defended this country and its values.” But, then, the memory of Drew Pearson projects none of the luster of the legendary Ed Murrow.

Also, it’s worth speculating that a keener risk to Murrow’s career and his reputation came in 1956, when he privately advised Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, on what Murrow’s biographer, A.M. Sperber, called “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in Murrow: His Life and Times that even though the Republican incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, seemed sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.”

The Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” Sperber noted, adding that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson’s advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen,” that his coaching was to be “kept quiet.”

WJC

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WaPo’s ‘myths about Watergate’ article ignores the scandal’s best-known mythical narrative

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

The Washington Post’s commentary section yesterday presented a rundown about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate.

Trouble is, the article unaccountably ignored the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Instead, the article addressed hackneyed claims such as “Watergate was politics as usual; Nixon just got caught” or obscure arguments such as “Nixon could have quieted the scandal by firing employees.” The sort of stuff few people find especially compelling.

Washington Post illustration

What many people do embrace is a claim often repeated in the news media in America and abroad.

And that is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, the mythical go-to narrative that the Post and its intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, unearthed the incriminating evidence that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

It’s a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively obscure.

It’s also a narrative rejected by those who ran the Post as the scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher at the time, insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and compelled the testimony and uncovered the evidence that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Against that tableau, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

The “myths of Watergate” article published yesterday made its nearest approach to the heroic-journalist narrative in addressing the notion that Woodward’s high-level secret source, code-named “Deep Throat,” was “pivotal to Nixon’s downfall.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt who, for a time, had been second in command at the FBI.

Felt conferred with Woodward periodically in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Washington suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. Typically, “Deep Throat” passed on to Woodward, or confirmed for him, piecemeal evidence about the scandal as it unfolded. At least that’s the version Woodward offered in The Secret Man, his book about Felt.

A far more prominent Watergate myth about “Deep Throat” is that he advised Woodward to “follow the money” in unlocking the intricacies of Watergate.

Follow the money” may be the single best-known quotation associated with Watergate (rivaled, perhaps, by Nixon’s statement in November 1973 that he was “not a crook”).

“Follow the money” was born of dramatic license, a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting.

“Follow the money” was memorably uttered by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie was outstanding in playing a conflicted, twitchy, and tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such assurance and confidence that it seemed to offer a roadmap to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

But even if Woodward had been counseled in real life to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office was not the mishandling of funds raised for his presidential reelection campaign but evidence of his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

That evidence was contained in one of the many audiotapes Nixon secretly made of his conversations at the White House from 1971 to 1973. The existence of the tapes was disclosed not by Woodward and Bernstein but by a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, in testimony before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Twelve months later, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tell-tale “Smoking Gun” tape to the Watergate special prosecutor, precipitating the president’s resignation.

WJC

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Journos ‘can, under right circumstances, topple a presidency’: What a myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 1, 2017 at 8:48 am

I ruminated the other day about the many applications of the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the ever-engaging myth that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The New York Times today suggests another use — that the heroic-journalist tale sends a message (presumably to the administration of President Donald Trump) “that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The Times made the outsize claim in a glowing article about Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein spoke about the importance of unfettered media.

The Times account, written by media reporter Michael M. Grynbaum, quoted liberal commentator E.J. Dionne as saying the dinner “’was a line-in-the-sand night, to an extent I didn’t expect.’” Dionne was further quoted as saying that “’having Woodward and Bernstein [speak at the dinner] sends another message’ — that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The last portion was Grynbaum’s paraphrase — which makes it no less a media myth.

Ford became president when Nixon quit

As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

The heroic-journalist tale “has become the most familiar story line of Watergate: ready shorthand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity. How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories. …

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office” — namely subpoena-wielding investigators who included special federal prosecutors, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon to surrender secretly recorded audio tapes that confirmed his guilty role in Watergate and made certain his resignation in August 1974.

As I’ve noted often at Media Myth Alert, not even principals at the Post during the Watergate period embraced the heroic-journalist myth.

The newspaper’s publisher back then, Katharine Graham, said during a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

And the newspaper’s top editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, said on the  “Meet the Press” talk show in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the secret tapes Nixon had made.

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

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

And Woodward, himself, told an interviewer in 2006 2004:

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

So why does this myth live on? Why is it so irresistible?

The reasons are many, as I discussed in the post the other day.

Among others, the trope has the heady effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in American history. Moreover, the notion that journalists can topple a president is reassuring to practitioners, especially amid the sustained retrenchment in their field. And it’s a way, however misguided, of a way to pay fawning tribute to Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s.

But perhaps most of all, the myth lives on because it’s an easy-to-remember version of what happened in Watergate, the country’s gravest political crisis. Easy to remember, and easy to retell.

Media myths thrive on such simplicity.

WJC

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The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate and its applications

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 28, 2017 at 3:26 pm

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — pops up often, and in the service of any number of objectives.

Nixon got Nixon

It is a tale of supposed high accomplishment inspiring to journalists, especially so at a time of sustained retrenchment in their field.

It’s a trope with the intoxicating effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in U.S. history.

And it’s a way of paying obsequious tribute to the Washington Post, much as Sky News in Britain did not long ago.

“The Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers,” a fawning essay at the Sky’s online site declared, adding:

“Thanks to its investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it can make the unique claim of having brought down an American president — the corrupt Richard Nixon.”

It’s not too difficult to understand why such an extravagant claim circulates so widely.

After all, it is tidy, handy if  terribly misleading shorthand about the sprawling Watergate scandal of 1972-74: It sweeps away complexities of Watergate, rendering the scandal and its thicket of lies and criminality rather easy to grasp. After all, as I noted in the recently published, expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate scandal “has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

The heroic-journalist myth has become a reductive substitute.

The heroic-journalist interpretation also is a way of saluting Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s. Both, in fact, will highlight this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where they are to hand out awards and offer remarks about the importance of investigative reporting. (Not surprisingly, their pending joint appearance has stirred fresh retelling of the heroic-journalist myth. The Washington Examiner said the other day, for instance, that Woodward and Bernstein’s “coverage of the Watergate break-in led eventually to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation.”)

In their younger days, Woodward and Bernstein sneered at the correspondents’ association dinner, describing it in All the President’s Men, their 1974 book about Watergate, as “a formal, overdone, alcohol-saturated event, attended by all those with power — or pretensions to power — in the media and government.” Woodward and Bernstein went anyway, in 1973, to collect a couple of prizes.

So over-the-top is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate that not even principals at the Post when the scandal played out — notably the publisher, Katharine Graham, and her top editor, Ben Bradlee — embraced the notion.

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Also that year, Bradlee said on the Sunday talk show “Meet the Press” that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

He was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to divert the FBI investigation into the botched burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972. The breakin touched off the scandal.

And in earthier terms, Woodward concurred, telling an interviewer in 2006:

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

Quite.

WJC

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After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post on February 23, 2017 at 7:15 am

One of the most cherished stories in American journalism is also a tenacious media-driven myth.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The cherished tale/media myth is commonly known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly exposed the bankruptcy of the Vietnam War. Forty-nine years ago next week, Cronkite declared in an unusual editorial comment at the close of a special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said  negotiations might offer the country a way out.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which came out recently, the “Cronkite Moment” had few of the effects that are commonly, and extravagantly, associated with it.

Notable among those effects was that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, immediately recognized that his war policy was a shambles.

We know that’s not true: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was in Austin, Texas, at that time, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. It is not clear whether, or when, Johnson saw the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, Cronkite said nothing about the war that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By February 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal way to characterize the Vietnam War.

It’s often claimed that Cronkite’s assessment turned public opinion against the war. But that wasn’t true, either: Public opinion had begun shifting months before Cronkite’s commentary. Indeed, Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong, which includes three new chapters and new material elsewhere, presents additional evidence that underscores the mythical status of the “Cronkite Moment.”

This evidence elaborates on Johnson’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of Cronkite’s special report — the days and weeks when the anchorman’s assessment should have exerted greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor should have been most pronounced.

But instead of recognizing that Cronkite had shown him the light, instead of realizing that his war policy was a shambles, the president doubled down. Johnson mounted an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honors to two Marines, Johnson declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, Johnson insisted in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days after that, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25, Johnson told an audience of trade unionists: “Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. On multiple occasions during that time, the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment and sought to rally support for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the president remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.

The shift in the president’s approach came not in the immediate aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” (which was not referred to as such until many years later) but during meetings with an informal group of senior counselors who collectively were known as the “Wise Men.”

They included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, and George Ball, a former under secretary of state.

The “Wise Men” had met in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” George Ball later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted a few years later.

The counsel of the Wise Men probably was the tipping point for Johnson on Vietnam. On March 31, he announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at University of California Press blog

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WaPo book review invokes Hearst myth of ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Yellow Journalism on January 28, 2017 at 9:05 am

In a time of “fake news” circulated by shadowy Web sites, you’d think mainstream media would be extra-vigilant about not trafficking in media myths, those appealing tall tales about the exploits of journalists.

Not so with the Washington Post, which repeats the mythical anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to wapologofurnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

The Post’s blunder appeared in a review posted yesterday of The True Flag, a new book about America’s emergence as a colonial power during and after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The review qualified the anecdote with the adverb “reputedly,” as if that insulates the writer or the newspaper from blame for peddling a dubious tale.

It doesn’t. If the anecdote’s false, or likely so, it ought to be left out.

Here’s how the offending passage reads:

“Yellow-press lord William Randolph Hearst reputedly cabled one of his photographers, ‘You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.'”

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which was published recently), “the Hearst anecdote is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It is almost too good not to be true.”

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmIt also is one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths that circulates, I note, “despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.”

The anecdote first appeared in 1901 in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a journalist prone to hyperbole and pomposity. Creelman’s book, On the Great Highway, did not explain how or where he learned about the “furnish the war” tale.

Creelman said Hearst’s vow was triggered by a telegram from Frederic Remington, a prominent artist and illustrator on assignment in Cuba for the New York Journal. (Contrary to the claim in the Post’s review, Remington was not a photographer.)

He spent six days in Cuba in January 1897, drawing sketches of the islandwide rebellion against Spanish rule, which preceded the wider war of 1898.

According to Creelman’s unsourced account, Remington wired Hearst, publisher of the Journal, to say: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst said in reply, according to Creelman:

“Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

The tale gained traction only years later after Hearst, a lifelong Democrat, broke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the New Deal and backed a Republican, Alf Landon, in the 1936 presidential election. Hearst’s apostasy prompted vigorous criticism and his foes seized on “furnish the war” as an example of his dangerous, war-mongering ways.

The most truculent of biographies about Hearst — Ferdinand Lundberg’s slim polemic, Imperial Hearst — was published in 1936. And it repeated the “furnish the war” anecdote.

The tale has endured, even though the telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up.

“It lives on,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message. It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Not only that, I write, but “Spanish control of the cable traffic in Havana was too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to go unnoticed and unremarked upon. A vow such as Hearst’s to ‘furnish the war’ surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.”

The evidence arrayed against the hearty anecdote makes it clear that the exchange Creelman described never took place.

So what are the odds the arrogant Post will correct this lapse?

WJC

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New year, old myths

In Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on January 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

The first weeks of the new year have brought the reappearance of a number of hoary media myths, those false but irresistible tall tales that circulate widely in the news media even though they’ve been thoroughly debunked.

These myths include the narrative about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — whose dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post supposedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

Not the Post's doing

Not the Post‘s doing

David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, invoked that well-known trope the other day.

Writing at a Sun-affiliated blog, Zurawik referred to “legacy investigative journalism that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and The Washington Post used to bring down Richard Nixon.”

This was not the first time Zurawik has invoked the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: In early November, he called Bernstein “[o]ne of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down.”

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago — not even the Post’s Watergate-era principals bought into the notion that Woodward and/or Bernstein brought down Nixon.

The newspaper’s then-publisher, Katharine Graham, and its executive editor, Ben Bradlee, dismissed assertions that the Post’s reporting had toppled Nixon. Graham, for example, said pointedly in a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

And Woodward, himself, has scoffed at the heroic-journalist myth, telling an interviewer for American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

Other prominent media myths circulate around Nixon — notably that of his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War.

Supposedly, Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 touting such a plan. An NPR commentary served up an extravagant and unsourced version of Nixon’s “secret plan,” flatly declaring 10 days ago:

“Richard Nixon won in 1968 while uniting his party around his ‘secret plan’ to end the war in Vietnam.”

The “secret plan” anecdote is perversely appealing in its expression of cunning and duplicity: The anecdote does seem thoroughly Nixonian.

But Nixon neither touted nor campaigned on a “secret plan,” let alone having used it to unite the Republican Party.

The pledge is one he never made.

In fact, candidate Nixon pointedly and publicly disavowed such a notion.

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

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

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But he did not make such a claim a feature of his campaign that year.

That much is clear in the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times,  New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon’s campaign featured a “secret plan” for Vietnam, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have publicized it.

The hoary tale of William Randolph Hearst’s warmongering vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the Nineteenth Century — a media myth that, zombie-like, never dies — popped up in Fit for the Presidency? a book published January 1.

Fit for the Presidency? revisits the credentials of 15 one-time presidential candidates, doing so through the lens of an executive recruiter. The cases examined include that of Hearst, a media baron who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1904.

The book invokes the “furnish the war” anecdote this way:

Warmonger?

Hearst: Warmonger?

“The most controversial episode of [Hearst’s] career began when he got a telegram from Frederic Remington, who he had sent to Cuba to cover the revolution against Spain: ‘Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.’ To which Hearst allegedly responded, ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’

“Yet, no one has been able to get a copy of either telegram, so there are strong suspicions that they never existed in the first place. Perhaps the story is a plant by [Hearst rival Joseph] Pulitzer, or it may have even been invented by Remington himself.”

The anecdote almost certainly is apocryphal, as I describe in detail in Getting It Wrong. The purported telegrams have indeed never turned up. Hearst, moreover, denied having sent such a message and Remington, a prominent artist of the American West, apparently never discussed the supposed exchange.

And the timing suggested by Fit for the Presidency? is a bit shaky, in that the anecdote was not in wide circulation when Hearst sought the presidential nomination in 1904.

The tale first appeared in 1901, in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a former reporter for Hearst who had a well-known reputation for injecting hyperbole in his writing. Creelman did not identify where or how he learned of the purported Remington-Hearst exchange.

In any case, the anecdote did not become prominently attached to Hearst until the mid-1930s, when he turned against President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. Hearst, a lifelong Democrat, condemned Roosevelt while backing Republican Alf Landon for the presidency in 1936.

Landon carried two states, Maine and Vermont, in a landslide defeat of epic proportion.

Hearst’s apostasy angered Democrats and prompted foes to dig up mostly forgotten tales such as the “furnish the war” vow. Indeed, that anecdote became Exhibit A in a lineup of purported evidence that Hearst’s newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898. The claim became popular and took on a sinister cast not when Hearst sought the presidential nomination in 1904, but in 1936 — and has circulated vigorously thereafter.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reasons are several.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suppressed the coverage was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nixon also said on that occasion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

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

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

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

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

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

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

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

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2016 :

Media myths: Prominent cases of ‘fake news’ masquerading as fact

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm

The mainstream media’s recent panic about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore a critical element: The media themselves often have been purveyors of bogus stories.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are examined in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently by University of California Press.

The book addresses and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated.

Media myths can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” or shoddy interpretation that have masqueraded as fact for years. Or decades.

Take, for example, the often-told tale that television viewers and radio listeners had sharply different impressions about who won the first-ever televised debate in September 1960 between major party candidates. The media myth is that John F. Kennedy looked so cool and collected that TV audiences gave him the nod, but that Richard Nixon was the winner among radio listeners.

The tale of viewer-listener disagreement has circulated for years and is dismantled in one of three new chapters in the second edition of Getting It Wrong. “Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation,” I write, “it is a robust trope that emerged within months of the first of four Kennedy-Nixon debates [in 1960] and is often invoked decades later as conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

Viewer-listener disagreement is a dubious bit of political lore that’s frequently cited by mainstream media, especially in the runup to  national elections. As with many media myths, I point out in the book, “the notion of viewer-listener disagreement rests more on assertion than persuasive evidence.”

What little polling data exist about the debate’s radio listeners are simply too sparse, too unstable, and too imprecise to support any broad conclusions about their views of the debate winner.

Moreover, the extensive debate coverage in major U.S. newspapers lends no support to the claim of viewer-listener disagreement, either.

Had dramatic and widespread differences characterized the reactions of TV and radio audiences, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report about such clashing perceptions — especially in the days immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter when curiosity about the debate, its novelty, and its impact ran high.

But none of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in researching the chapter about the debate made specific reference to the presumptive phenomenon of listener-viewer disagreement: Leading American newspapers contained nothing in the debate’s immediate aftermath that suggested pervasive differences in how televisions viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate, I note.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement appears to have originated in a passage in The Making of the President, 1960, an award-winning book about the campaign written by journalist Theodore White.

Getting It Wrong punctures other fake tales, including:

  • The purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain, supposedly contained in a telegraphic exchange with Frederic Remington, an artist on assignment in Cuba in 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal. The war-mongering vow is well-known in American journalism, but is supported by no compelling evidence or documentation. The telegrams have never turned up and Hearst denied sending such a message. But because it supposedly captures Hearst’s duplicitous ways so well, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on, despite having been thoroughly debunked.
  • The radio adaptation in October 1938 of The War of The Worlds was supposedly so dramatic and sounded so convincing that tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in panic and mass hysteria, believing that Earth was under an invasion from Mars. But evidence is scant at best that the radio program caused such powerful effects. If panic had spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was linked to the show.
    This tale, too, lives on, resistant to debunking.
  • The supposed battlefield heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who, the Washington Post said, fought Lynch_headline_Postfiercely in the ambush of her unit during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003. Lynch, the Post claimed, was shot and stabbed, but kept firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition and was taken prisoner. The Post’s electrifying, front-page story about Lynch’s derring-do carried the headline “‘She was fighting to the death'” and was picked up and amplified by news organizations around the world.
    But the story soon was found to be wrong in all important respects: Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush (her weapon had jammed) and she was neither shot nor stabbed. The heroics attributed to her were an apparent case of mistaken identity that likely stemmed from a translation error. The Post, however, never has adequately explained how it got it so badly wrong about Jessica Lynch. Or who its sources were.

The Post figures in an even more prominent media myth — namely that the reporting of two of its reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal and exposed the wrongdoing that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974. This simplistic, easy-to-remember yet misleading version of Watergate has become the scandal’s dominant narrative.

But clearly, that’s not how Watergate was uncovered. Unspooling the scandal was the work of subpoena-wielding agencies and actors, including federal special prosecutors, congressional committees, the FBI, and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal if not for the secret audio tapes he had made of conversations at the White House. The tapes clearly revealed his guilty role in approving a cover-up of Watergate’s seminal crime — the burglary in June 1972 of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

But the media myth of Watergate — the spurious interpretation about how the scandal was exposed — lives on. And is not infrequently repeated by news organizations, including rivals of the Post.

The tale endures even though officials at the Post have periodically over the years pointedly rejected the notion. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said:

“Sometimes, people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham was right. But the constitutional-processes interpretation of Watergate is far less dramatic, and far more intricate, than the narrative about two ambitious journalists and their earnest reporting.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at the University of California Press blog

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Trump upset exposes years-old media failing: A viewpoint-diversity deficit

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on November 14, 2016 at 10:59 am

Amid the media’s self-flagellation and agonized introspection in the days since Donald Trump’s stunning election victory — days that brought such astonishing turns as the New York Times all but begging subscribers not to quit the newspaper — I have thought often of an ombudsman’s column published eight years ago, soon after Barack Obama won the presidency.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-4-25-38-pm

NYTimes letter to subscribers

The ombudsman, or in-house critic, was Deborah Howell of the Washington Post, who wrote:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

The column stuck with me not only because of Howell’s evident candor in describing conservatives in the newsroom — you could almost see them cowering — but because viewpoint diversity remains largely elusive in mainstream American journalism.

Howell was right in 2008, and her analysis rings true today: Leading U.S. news outlets have done little to address a failing that has been evident for years.

As John Kass, a conservative columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “It’s no secret that most of American journalism is liberal in its politics. The diversity they prize has nothing to do with diversity of thought.”

The viewpoint-diversity deficit was highlighted anew in Trump’s electoral victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, an outcome that gave journalists what Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab called “the shock of their professional lives.”

The shock was of 1948 proportions, the year when President Harry S. Truman defied broad expectations that he would handily lose the election to Republican Thomas Dewey. This year, as Nate Silver of the  FiveThirtyEight data blog observed, “most campaign coverage was premised on the idea that Clinton was all but certain to become the next president.”

The outcome revealed how inadequately journalists had prepared their audiences for a Trump victory.

Granted, the viewpoint-diversity deficit in leading American newsrooms hasn’t been much measured. As I note in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out late last month — a survey in 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists found that 8 percent of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves “conservative.” The overwhelming majority self-reported as “moderate” or “liberal.”

That such surveys have been rare is hardly reason to pretend the deficit is imaginary. Or that it can be justified by arguing, “Well, conservatives have Fox News,” the cable outlet.

Few media self-critiques following Trump’s victory were as brutally discerning — or as revealing of the viewpoint-diversity deficit — as the essay Will Rahn wrote for CBS News.

Rahn, managing director of political coverage for CBS News Digital, did not refer specifically to viewpoint diversity in his essay. But he said as much, writing:

“Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid. It’s a profound failure of empathy in the service of endless posturing.”

Rahn further wrote of journalists:

“We must become more impartial, not less so. We have to abandon our easy culture of tantrums and recrimination. We have to stop writing these know-it-all, 140-character sermons on social media and admit that, as a class, journalists have a shamefully limited understanding of the country we cover. … There’s a fleeting fun to gang-ups and groupthink. But it’s not worth what we are losing in the process.”

The periodic Wikileaks disclosures during the fall campaign that revealed fawning interactions of journalists and the Clinton campaign further confirmed that the deficit in viewpoint diversity is no evanescent problem.

And it’s not of recent vintage.

Howell’s column in 2008 quoted Tom Rosenstiel, then the director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism as saying that “conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

Rosenstiel added: “More conservatives in newsrooms will bring about better journalism.”

In this year’s election, journalists openly challenged or flouted professional norms of impartiality and detachment in reporting, saying the incendiary character of Trump’s views and remarks was so egregious that they were left with no choice.

Columbia Journalism Review fairly rejoiced in what it saw as a latter-day “Murrow Moment” for journalists, a reference to the mythical 1954 television program when Edward R. Murrow took on the red-baiting Republican senator, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The journalism review said “we … are witnessing a change from existing practice of steadfast detachment, and the context in which journalists are reacting is not unlike that of Murrow: The candidate’s comments fall outside acceptable societal norms, and critical journalists are not alone in speaking up.”

Powerful stuff. Except that the “Murrow Moment” is a false precedent.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed pointed and sustained attention to the senator’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. McCarthy, I point out, had no more sustained or prominent critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the nationally syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began a campaign against communists in government, and persisted in questioning the validity of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.

Not only that, but McCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids before Murrow’s program aired on March 9, 1954.

So the “Murrow Moment” can’t be considered a high moment in American journalism.

Nor for that matter can last week’s election.

WJC

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