W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Fact-checking’

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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‘Napalm Girl’ photograph ‘changed us and our stomach for war’: But how?

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on March 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm

The Associated Press photographer who took the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is retiring this month, a development that prompted yet another exaggerated claim about the image and its supposed effects.

Nick Ut in 2016

The photographer is Nick Ut, who in June 1972 made the photograph of a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village in what then was South Vietnam. The image is regarded as among the most memorable of the war and won for Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Over the years, the photograph has become embroidered with media myths — notably the erroneous notion that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes. As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the attack at Trang Bang was carried out by the 518th Fighter Squadron of the South Vietnamese Air Force.

The other day, a Los Angeles television station contributed to the hyperbole associated with “Napalm Girl” by declaring the photograph was so powerful that it “changed us and our stomach for war.”

But how?

How did Ut’s black-and-white photograph — emotionally powerful though it was — change “us and our stomach for war”?

The report, by KABC TV, didn’t say, didn’t back up what was a sweeping and dubious claim.

Instead, the report reviewed Ut’s career, much of which was spent in Los Angeles for AP, after the Vietnam War.

To direct attention to the blithe KABC claim is not to be excessively fastidiousness. Indeed, calling out the assertion that the photograph “changed us” is to underscore how “Napalm Girl” has, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “become invested with mythic qualities and suffused with power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can realistically project.”

The myths and exaggerations that have taken hold about “Napalm Girl” also include claims that that the photograph hastened an end to the Vietnam War and that it galvanized American public opinion against the conflict. Those claims are inaccurate; neither can be sustained by dispassionate assessment of the relevant evidence.

The war went on nearly three years after the photograph was taken, ending in April 1975 with North Vietnam’s military conquest of South Vietnam. And U.S. public opinion had shifted against the conflict long before 1972.

As for having little “stomach for war” after 1972 — the United States has been engaged in numerous conflicts since Vietnam, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions or air strikes in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

So why does it much matter to confront and debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” a photograph taken nearly 45 years ago?

Debunking those myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “is vital for a number of reasons, not the least of which is insisting on a more complete understanding of a prominent visual artifact of a bitter and prolonged war.

“Confronting the myths [also] serves to puncture the post hoc causality commonly associated with the image, and to deflate the notion that a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict. To assert such an argument is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”

WJC

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Why Trump-Russia is hardly Nixon-Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Watergate myth on March 5, 2017 at 9:59 am
nixon-resigns_cxtribune

Exceptional

“Overstated” hardly suffices in describing the media’s eagerness to find in President Donald Trump’s odd affinity for Russia parallels or echoes that bring to mind Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

Such stuff is overstated. Premature. Facile. And ahistoric.

Even if they are vague and remote, Trump-Russia parallels to Nixon-Watergate are delectable to hyperventilating anti-Trump commentators. But of course no evidence has emerged that Trump or his administration have been corrupted by Russia, or that they are under the influence of Russia’s thuggish leader, Vladimir Putin.

Casually invoking such parallels is to ignore and diminish Watergate’s exceptionality. Watergate was a constitutional crisis of unique dimension in which some 20 men, associated either with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972, went to prison.

Watergate’s dénouement — Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 — was driven not by dogged reporting of the Washington Post but by Nixon’s self-destructive decision to tape-record conversations at the White House. Thousands of hours of audiotape recordings were secretly made, from February 1971 to July 1973.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago:

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension [as Watergate] required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write, 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.”

Those recordings were crucial. They provided unambiguous evidence that Nixon conspired to obstruct justice by approving a plan to divert the FBI from its investigation into the seminal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his second presidential term. He would have been bloodied and weakened by Watergate, but his presidency likely would have survived the scandal.

That, too, was the assessment of Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley Kutler, who died last year. In the final analysis, Kutler observed, Nixon “was primarily responsible” for bringing down Nixon, given the tell-tale tapes.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Other figures, including John Dean, White House counsel to Nixon as Watergate unfolded, have reached similar conclusions.

Not only were the White House tapes essential, but unseating Nixon, a Republican, also required a Democratic-controlled Congress to pursue investigations of the administration and the tentacles of Watergate. Likewise, it took a Republican-controlled Congress to impeach Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice.

It would take a good deal more than vague associations for a Republican-controlled Congress to consider launching an impeachment inquiry of Trump, and that reality renders Trump-Russia and Nixon-Watergate comparisons even more distant and improbable.

Of course, Trump, himself, has invoked Nixon and Watergate. He did so yesterday, claiming on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped Trump Tower in New York City. Trump offered no evidence to support the claim, which stands as yet another example of how Nixon-Watergate parallels are invoked with imprecision.

In tweeting such a claim, Trump came off as unpersuasive as his bloviating media foes.

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 :

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 18, 2016 at 1:58 pm

In a lengthy essay posted today, Politico considers what it called the “long and brutal history of fake news” — and offers up, as if it were true, the fake tale of William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The essay also invokes other myths associated with the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

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.

Politico logoHere’s how Politico recounted the anecdote:

“In the 1890s, plutocrats like Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst’s correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst — the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — famously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”

Lots of myth to unpack in that passage.

Let’s start with the unsourced reference to Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago), “the anecdote 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.”screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm

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 — specifically, Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

Not only that, but it’s extremely unlikely that Hearst’s purported telegram would have reached Remington without being intercepted by Spanish authorities.

They controlled all incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic and their oversight, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “too vigilant and severe to have allowed such an exchange to have gone unnoticed and unremarked upon.”

I further point out that an incendiary message such as a vow to “furnish the war” surely would have been intercepted and publicized by Spanish authorities as a clear-cut example of Yankee meddling in Cuba.

Remington’s assignment in Cuba was to draw sketches of the rebellion which, by then, had reached islandwide proportions. Spain had sent as many as 200,000 troops to Cuba in a futile attempt to put down the conflict. Remington arrived in early January 1897 and stayed six days.

He apparently never spoke publicly about the purported telegraphic exchange with Hearst. Even so, the artist’s work and recollections of the assignment belie the notion that he had found Cuba undisturbed by conflict.

Remington

Remington: Brief trip to Cuba gave rise to media myth

His sketches published in Hearst’s New York Journal depict unmistakable, if unremarkable, scenes of  rebellion — a scouting party of Spanish cavalry with rifles at the ready; a cluster of Cuban noncombatants trussed and bound and being herded into Spanish lines; a scruffy Cuban rebel kneeling to fire at a small Spanish fort; a knot of Spanish soldiers dressing a comrade’s leg wound.

Accompanying the sketch of the captive noncombatants was a caption in which Remington said the treatment of Cuban women by irregulars allied with the Spanish was nothing short of “unspeakable.” And “as for the men captured by them alive,” Remington’s caption said, “the blood curdles in my veins as I think of the atrocity, the cruelty, practiced on these helpless victims.”

In 1899, Remington recalled the assignment to Cuba in a short magazine article in which he wrote:

“I saw ill-clad, ill-fed Spanish soldiers bring their dead and wounded into” Havana, “dragging slowly along in ragged columns. I saw scarred Cubans with their arms bound stiffly behind them being marched to the Cabanas,” a grim fortress overlooking the Havana harbor. The countryside, Remington wrote, “was a pall of smoke” from homes of Cubans that had been set afire.

Clearly, the artist had seen a good deal of war-related misery and disruption during his brief visit to Cuba.

The trip’s immediate aftermath proved controversial and embarrassing to Remington. After returning to New York, he drew an imaginative and highly inaccurate sketch of leering Spanish authorities conducting a strip-search of a young Cuban woman aboard an American passenger vessel before it left Havana.

Remington’s sketch was drawn to accompany a report by Richard Harding Davis, a flashy correspondent who had accompanied the artist to Cuba and stayed on for a few weeks.

Davis’ article — which condemned the search and suggested, erroneously, that it was illegal on an American-flagged vessel in Cuban waters — was published on the Journal’s front page in February 1897. Remington’s accompanying strip-search sketch (see nearby) was displayed on page 2. It erred in showing men conducting the search; it was carried out by a woman.

Presumably, this sketch is what Politico referred to in stating:

“Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women — and he got his war.”screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-11-15-08-am

The subject of the search was a Cuban woman. And the sketch, while exaggerated, had nothing to do with the onset of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.

Nor did the content of Hearst’s newspapers: They did not foment or give rise to the conflict — a media-centric interpretation that I address and debunk in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Claims that Hearst brought about the war, I wrote, “often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, the scene of rebellion since early 1895.

In trying to put down the rebellion, Spain not only had sent thousands of troops to the island, it imposed a cruel policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s newspapers in New York and San Francisco.

The Hearst press reported on, but did not create, the deplorable effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in April 1898 — a decision that had little to do with Hearst, Remington, or the content of the New York Journal.

WJC

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NYTimes recalls ‘Napalm Girl’ (and other famous ‘pictures of war’); overstates its impact

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Photographs, Scandal on December 15, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Prominently displayed on the front page of today’s New York Times were powerful images of war — the memorable and myth-burdened “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972 among them.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-12-31-42-pmThe wartime images accompanied an essay about the misery of Syria’s battered city, Aleppo, once a rebel stronghold in the country’s prolonged civil war.

“They keep coming,” the essay began, “both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them ….”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert was a passage deeper in the essay that invoked “Napalm Girl“:

“Pictures of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before. … There was Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph from South Vietnam of the naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming, burned by napalm. These pictures drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

Well, not in case of “Napalm Girl.”

The photograph, which showed a cluster of terror-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village northwest of what was then called Saigon, provoked no prolonged conversation in the American press in the days following its publication. It prompted few newspaper editorials.

There’s no evidence, moreover, that “Napalm Girl”  helped “tip the scales of policy.” (The essay in the Times cited none.)

I address the myths of “Napalm Girl” in my book, Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which was  published recently.

“Over the years,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the superlatives associated with the image have edged into hyperbole and exaggeration. Napalm Girl has become invested with mythic qualities and a power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can project.”

Among the myths is that “Napalm Girl” was so arresting and extraordinary that it appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. I present data challenging that notion, reporting in Getting It Wrong that of 40 major U.S. dailies examined, 21 placed the photograph on the front page in the days soon after it was taken on June 8, 1972.

Fourteen of the 21 newspapers displayed “Napalm Girl” above the front-page fold, a newspaper’s most coveted placement.

But 19 newspapers examined either did not publish “Napalm Girl” or placed the photograph on an inside page.

Reservations about front nudity no doubt led some newspapers to decline to publish “Napalm Girl” or give it prominence, I note, although the depth of such reluctance is difficult to measure.

In any event, it is clear that “Napalm Girl” did not drive “news cycles for weeks, months, years,” as the Times’ essay asserted.

Nor did the image drive policy.

It had no discernible effect on the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, which was put in place during the presidency of Richard Nixon and sought to shift the bulk of fighting to America’s South Vietnamese allies.

By June 1972, most American combat troops had been removed from South Vietnam, a drawdown neither slowed nor accelerated by publication of “Napalm Girl.”

This is not to say Nixon was unaware of the photograph, however. He briefly discussed “Napalm Girl” with his top White House aide, H.R. Haldeman, a conversation captured on Nixon’s secret taping system.

The tapes show that Haldeman on June 12, 1972, brought up what he called the “napalm thing.” Nixon replied by saying:

“I wonder if that was a fix” meaning: Was the image staged?

“Could have been,” Haldeman said, adding, “Napalm bothers people. You get a picture of a little girl with her clothes burnt off.”

“I wondered about that,” Nixon replied.

The photograph had no known effect on Nixon’s thinking about the war, I write in Getting It Wrong, pointing out that his attention was soon diverted. On June 17, 1972, burglars linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, the signal crime of what ballooned into the Watergate scandal.

Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary’s links to his campaign — a scheme he discussed with Haldeman in tape-recorded conversation June 23, 1972 — eventually cost Nixon the presidency.

WJC

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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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