W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Getting It Wrong’

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

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

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

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

The Long Island newspaper Newsday gushed even more, declaring:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They weren’t.

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

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

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

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured,” I wrote.

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

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

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

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

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

Except that it really wasn’t.

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

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

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

WaPo: Now drinking the Watergate Kool-Aid?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm

The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal is that dogged reporting by the Washington Post uncovered evidence that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

wapo-logoIt’s a tempting if reductive media-centric myth that principals at the Post have routinely rejected over the years. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said, for example:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate, concurred, if less eloquently. He told the American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

'To say the press brought down Nixon ...'

Woodward: ‘To say the press brought down Nixon …’

But occasionally in recent years, the Post’s myth-avoidance on Watergate has slipped. In July 2014, for example, John Kelly, a local columnist for the newspaper, referred to Woodward’s reporting partner on Watergate, Carl Bernstein, as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

And today, the front page of the Post’sOutlook” section features an essay about the appeal of conspiracy theories; the essay closes with this passage:

“It’s worth remembering that, very occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Just ask the two cheeky journalists at this newspaper who followed a crazy conspiracy theory and brought down a sitting president.”

The reference to “cheeky journalists,” of course, is to Woodward and Bernstein. And “crazy conspiracy theory” means the Watergate scandal (which indeed may have been a bit “crazy”). But “brought down a sitting president”? That was far beyond the power of the Post, or any newspaper, to accomplish.

As I discussed in my 2010 myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions of  “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I noted, “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 an interpretation that essentially endorsed the view of Michael Getler who, as 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.”

The Post’s contribution to Watergate’s outcome was marginal, the mythology notwithstanding.

Given the evidence — and the traditional reluctance of principals at the Post to embrace the mythical narrative of Watergate — it’s puzzling why “Outlook” editors allowed the erroneous “cheeky journalists” passage into print.

We’ll see if the Post publishes a correction.

WJC

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NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm

There’s no doubt Hollywood is an important reason why Watergate’s dominant narrative has it that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and the Washington Post toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Not the Post's doing

Not the Post’s doing

It is a heroic narrative that found mention today’s New York Times, in an article discussing two movies about journalists that could be contenders this year for Academy Awards.

One of them is Truth, a perversely titled film that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used bogus documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. No way does that movie deserve Oscar consideration. The other contender-film is titled Spotlight.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the Times article’s blithe and mistaken reference to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Post had no such effect, however much the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men, encouraged that notion. As I noted in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, the movie promotes an “unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured.”

Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release and the notion that Woodward and Bernstein toppled Nixon remains the principal way Watergate is understood, a version that disregards and diminishes the far more accurate interpretation of what led to Nixon’s fall in August 1974.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “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.

Principals at the Post have, over the years, rejected the simplistic notion that the newspaper’s reporting led Nixon to resign.

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.”

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

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

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

Today’s article wasn’t the first time the Times has turned to the mythical claim about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

In a cover article in 2014, the Times Sunday magazine mentioned Woodward and Bernstein, saying they “actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.”

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

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2015

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

Media Myth Alert called attention in 2015 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases in which celebrities took up and repeated dubious tall tales about journalists and their work.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of the year, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2015.

Celebrities pushing media myths: Garrison Keillor and Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow (posted April 29): I noted in 2015 that the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century has become zombie-like: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Keillor_WritersAlmanacThe hoary old myth received a boost in April when, on the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth, the humorist and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, blithely invoked the unsubstantiated anecdote, which reinforces the superficial and misleading notion of Hearst as war-mongering newspaper publisher.

“In 1898,” Keillor told listeners of his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism, and it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons described in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Keillor

Keillor

Notably, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegraphed messages that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message, had it been sent.

Moreover, the sole original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote, James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, never said how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

And almost no one remembers that Hearst denied having sent such a message.

By the way, the transcript of Keillor’s remarks about Hearst and Remington remains posted at the “Writer’s Almanac” Web site. Uncorrected.

Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat”: Why is he biopic worthy? (posted November 27): W. Mark Felt, a disgraced former senior FBI official best-known as a secret source in the Watergate scandal, is to receive hero’s treatment in a biopic to be called Felt.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Peter Landesman, who is to produce and direct the film, was quoted last week as saying Felt will be akin to “a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.”

But why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy?

He was no noble or heroic figure.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the FBI’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the agency’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

FBI agents who conducted the illegal break-ins went through “desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen,” according to an account in the New York Times. “With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents” belonging to relatives of Weather radicals.

In 1980, Felt was convicted of felony charges related to those warrantless break-ins, which were known in the FBI as “black bag jobs.” He was fined $5,000 but not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The following year, Felt received an unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged at trial having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller argued that the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan trips over the “Cronkite Moment” myth (posted August 30): In late summer, the Wall Street Journal’s prominent weekend columnist, Peggy Noonan, attempted to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his soaring presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Noonan tripped over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan

That “moment” was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in visceral reaction, said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in  Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president then was attending a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally.

I also noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War: “Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite spoke the word on the air.

In her column, Noonan referred to shifting contours in American politics that have boosted Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She also wrote:

“Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may have been indirect and a bit confusing, given the topic of her column. But there was no doubt she was treating as authentic one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

Another prominent columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also referred to the “Cronkite Moment” in 2015.

Dowd did so in February, in a commentary that ruminated about the bizarre falsehoods told by Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News, about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: Williams claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Dowd, after noting that network evening news shows are shells of their much-watched former selves, turned implicitly to the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that CBS anchorman had “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say “we were losing.” He said the war was stalemated and that negotiations might eventually prove to be the way out. But saying so posed no risk to Cronkite’s career. By then, it was commonplace, and safe, to say the war had reached a stalemate.

No, Politico: Ben Bradlee’s WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon (posted May 27): In an account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Politico invoked the hardy media myth that the Post’s reporting on the scandal “brought down a president.”

Politico logoOf course, it had no such effect, as Bradlee himself had said, on the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate–the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

On Meet the Press in June 1997, Bradlee said “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee, who died in 2014, was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in conspiring to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin at the DNC headquarters.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s presidency represents a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, bipartisan congressional panels, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over to prosecutors the tapes that captured his guilty participation in the attempted coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal. Modest at best. They were hardly decisive, Politico’s claim notwithstanding.

Jorge Ramos, media-myth-teller (posted September 5): The international reach of media-driven myths was best defined in 2015 when Jorge Ramos, the self-important anchorman for Univision, went on an ABC News program and claimed that the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

He stated:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have—Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon—that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Ramos, who has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” invoked a similar claim a few days later in a commentary posted at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico.

What prompted these claims was Ramos’ conduct a news conference convened by Donald Trump. Ramos insisted on posing a question before being called on, a showboating moment that led to his being escorted from the room.

In any event, Ramos was wrong about the Post, its reporters, and Watergate.

Not even the newspaper’s principal figures during the Watergate period embraced the notion that the Post forced Nixon to quit in August 1974.

Notable among them was the publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham. She said 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.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2015:

WaPo move to new quarters stirs retelling of hero-journalist myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2015 at 10:34 am

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to stir up a media myth.

Consider, for example, the recent move of the Washington Post to new quarters in the capital — a move the newspaper reported on to absurd excess.

Leaving prompts myth-telling

Leaving this mythical place

The Guardian newspaper of London took up the development today in a report online, posted beneath the headline: “Washington Post bids farewell to office where it broke Watergate.”

The Guardian described the Post’s former home on 15th Street NW as the place “where Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down president Richard Nixon.” It’s almost as if any excuse will do to trot out the bromide that the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through their dogged reporting for the Post, exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Untenable though it is, the heroic-journalist trope has become the dominant narrative of Watergate — an engaging but simplified account of the country’s gravest political crisis that not even principals at the Post have embraced.

Woodward, for example, once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

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

On another occasion, Woodward declared that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said 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.”

True enough. So why does the myth persist? What explains its tenacity in the face of denial, repudiation, and debunking?

An important explanation is that the epic scandal has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

The heroic-journalist interpretation makes Watergate accessible.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that explanation strips away the scandal’s daunting complexity, does away with the intricate investigations that slowly exposed high-level misconduct, leaving the Post, Woodward, and Bernstein as celebrated stand-ins “for understanding Watergate and its denouement.”

It’s a trope that reassures journalists, too, reminding them in these unsettled times that the work of their predecessors supposedly had significant and memorable consequences. As the inimitable media critic Jack Shafer wrote the other day, journalists are “sentimental creatures who draw on the past to self-mythologize.”

To indulge in the heroic-journalist trope is to indulge in dubious history. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, “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.”

Rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I wrote, “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 Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Guardian was not alone in recalling the heroic-journalist myth as the Post staff decamped a short distance to an address on K Street NW.

In a dispatch last week, the French new agency, Agence France-Presse, described the Post’s erstwhile home as “the scene of groundbreaking reporting on the Watergate scandal by young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

The Post’s reporting, in fact, was quite marginal to Wategate’s outcome.

WJC

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The mythical ‘panic broadcast’: Tired cliché of Halloween

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2015 at 9:16 am
Welles_monument

Welles and The War of the Worlds

The days around Halloween can be among the most myth-indulgent of the year, given the many media reminders about The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that aired 77 years ago tonight.

The hour-long show, which aired on CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles, was so vivid in telling of the invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays that tens of thousands of Americans supposedly were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

Or as the Indianapolis Star put it the other day, “Pandemonium swept the nation that evening” in 1938.

Or as the Louisville Courier-Journal said about the program, “unsuspecting listeners reacted in horror while listening to descriptions of a devastating landing of ‘ferocious Martian invaders.'”

And so it goes: Late October brings predictable references to the “panic broadcast” of 1938 and to the upheaval it supposedly caused. It’s so predictable as to have become a cliché.

That the program set off widespread panic and mass hysteria also is a hoary media myth, a myth that offers deceptive messages about the influence radio wielded over listeners decades ago and about the media’s capacity to sow terror and alarm. There is scant evidence that The War of the Worlds had such effects: Whatever fright there was that night 77 years ago did not reach nationwide proportions.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had panic spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s supposed panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with a long ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely hyped and overblown?

It is, for starters, famous, or infamous, for what it suggests about the presumptive dark power of mass media.

It is, moreover, a deliciously clever story, one well-suited for retelling at Halloween.

Indeed, the show is often rebroadcast, or re-enacted, this time of year — which serves to reintroduce and celebrate the performance, keeping it fresh in the popular consciousness.

The “panic broadcast” also lives on because it allows contemporary media consumers to indulge, if quietly and privately, in a bit of smugness — that we would never be so gullible as to believe such a media hoax; we are too media-savvy. But back then, in the 1930s when radio was still new, they weren’t so sophisticated: They were more naïve, more easily duped by exaggerated media messages.

This is known as the third-person effect, the belief that others are more credulous, or more susceptible to media influences, than we are.

Such smugness has helped keep alive the tired Halloween cliché of The War of the Worlds.

WJC

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

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

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

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

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

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

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Jorge Ramos, media myth-teller

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 5, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Jorge Ramos, the Univision anchorman, demonstrated recently that he is a self-important showboat in disrupting a news conference convened by presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Ramos also has demonstrated a taste for media myth.

In a commentary posted yesterday at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico, Ramos invoked the myth that the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon in its reporting of the Watergate scandal.

He wrote, according to the Google translation from Spanish, that among “the best examples of journalism” was the Washington Post’s “forcing Nixon to resign” in 1974.

Ramos made a similar claim on the ABC News “This Week” program Sunday, stating:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have — Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon — that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Of course, though, the Post did not force Nixon’s resignation.

Not even principals at the Post during the Watergate period embraced that notion.

For example, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham, said 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.”

Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, concurred, albeit in earthier terms. He told an interviewer in 2006:

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

And Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, said on “Meet the Press” in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

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

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“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 it is a simplistic and decidedly misleading interpretation, one that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

“To roll up a scandal of” the dimensions of Watergate, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “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 — effectively ending his presidency.

WJC

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

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

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

Peggy Noonan

Noonan (Harvard University)

That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in visceral reaction said something to the effect of:

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

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

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

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War.

“Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite’s report. For example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis on August 7, 1967, that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Old style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Hispanic America,” she writes. “New style: Jorge Ramos speaks for Jorge Ramos. Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may seem odd, indirect, and even a bit confusing, given the context. But there’s no doubt she was treating as genuine one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

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

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

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

Except that it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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

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

Katrina, 10 years ago

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

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

A quintessential great moment is was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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