W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Getting It Wrong’

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

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

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

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

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon’s tapes got Nixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Nat Geo’s cartoonish treatment of Hearst v. Pulitzer

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

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

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

Pulitzer bust

Pulitzer: Mean-spirited ways ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

evangelina_oct10_trim

‘Jailbreaking journalism,’ 1897

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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Who chased Nixon from office? Not Woodward, Bernstein

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

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

It is a racket that allows officials to evade accountability.

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

Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

The ambitious Mark Felt

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

Woodward and Bernstein chased Nixon out of office?

Not quite.

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

As Woodward, himself, has said:

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

And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the complexity and dimension of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings,” which captured him approving a plan to deflect the FBI’s investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the foiled burglary in mid-June 1974 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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NY Times ‘suppression myth’ makes appearance in ‘Freedom of Speech’

In Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Watergate myth on May 20, 2015 at 5:02 pm

The tale about the New York Times suppressing its own reporting in the runup to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba isn’t necessarily the most popular of media myths.

NYT_BayofPigs_front

It made page one

It’s not recounted as frequently as, say, the mythical Cronkite Moment of 1968 or the dubious tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain in 1898.

But the Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth is a tale tenacious as it is delicious, and it makes a cameo appearance in Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword, a recently published book by a former Timesman, David K. Shipler.

The suppression myth, which is addressed and debunked in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, has it that the Times bowed to pressure from the administration of President John F. Kennedy and spiked, killed, or otherwise sanitized a detailed report about the pending invasion.

Shipler invokes the suppression tale this way:

“The most famous and catastrophic case of journalists’ abandoning their role in getting the facts out was the Times‘s decision to water down advance information on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.” He doesn’t say what the Times supposedly held back, or just how that was “catastrophic.”

But he does claim that “a full-throated disclosure might have helped derail the plan, saving lives and preventing a humiliating defeat.”

Speculation aside, Shipler’s right that the ill-fated invasion was a humiliating defeat for the Kennedy administration: A brigade of U.S.-trained foes of the regime of Fidel Castro landed on the beaches of southern Cuba in April 1961 and was rolled up within three days.

But Shipler’s claim about the Times’ having watered down “advance information” is supported by no relevant or persuasive evidence. He cites none in the endnotes of his book.

The Times article that rests at the heart of this media myth was neither suppressed, killed, nor eviscerated.

That article (see above) was written by a veteran correspondent, Tad Szulc, who reported from Miami that 5,000 to 6,000 Cuban exiles had received military training for a mission to topple Castro’s communist regime; the actual number of invaders was closer to 1,400.

Overstatement was hardly the article’s most controversial or memorable element.

Supposedly, editors at the Times caved in to pressure from the White House and emasculated Szulc’s report, removing key elements about the invasion plans.

That Kennedy intervened in the Times’ editorial decisionmaking in April 1961 is widely believed, and lives on as a cautionary tale, as Shipler suggests.

But as I discussed in Getting It Wrong, “the notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy. There is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance” about Szulc’s dispatch, which was filed April 6, 1961.

The article was published the following day, above the fold on the Times front page.

In his book Without Fear or Favor, an insider’s look at the Times, Harrison Salisbury offered a detailed account about the handling of Szulc’s dispatch.

“The government in April 1961,” Salisbury wrote, “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.

The editing was cautious but hardly unreasonable.

A reference to the invasion’s imminence was removed, which served to improve the story’s accuracy. The anti-Castro exile force launched its assault on April 17, 1961, 10 days after Szulc’s report appeared, an interval that hardly connotes “imminence.”

References to the CIA’s role in training the Cuban exiles were omitted from the story in favor of the more nebulous terms “U.S. officials” and “U.S. experts.” Turner Catledge, then the Times managing editor, said the U.S. government had more than a few intelligence agencies, “more than most people realize, and I was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.”

An entirely defensible editorial decision.

The prominence given Szulc’s report was modified, from a planned four-column display to a single column. If the invasion was not believed imminent, then a four-column headline was difficult to justify, Catledge reasoned.

Those decisions were judicious, and certainly not unreasonable.

“Most important,” as Salisbury wrote, “The Times had not killed Szulc’s story. … The Times believed it was more important to publish than to withhold. Publish it did.”

On the front page.

What’s often ignored is that Szulc’s article of April 7, 1961, was no one-off story. It scarcely was the Times’ last word about invasion plans.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, “Subsequent reporting in the Times, by Szulc and others, kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro.” Not all the reports were accurate in all their details, but the combined effect was to signal something important was afoot.

For example, on April 8, 1961, the Times published a front-page article about the exiles and their eagerness to topple Castro.

The article appeared beneath the headline, “Castro Foe Says Uprising Is Near,” and quoted the president of the U.S.-based umbrella group of exiles, the Cuban Revolutionary Council.

The following day, the Times front page included a report by Szulc describing how Cuban exile leaders were attempting to paper over differences in advance of what was termed the coming “thrust against Premier Fidel Castro.”

The “first assumption” of the leaders’ plans, Szulc wrote, “is that an invasion by a ‘liberation army,’ now in the final stages of training in Central America and Louisiana, will succeed with the aid of internal uprising in Cuba. It is also assumed that a provisional ‘government in arms’ will be established promptly on the island.”

That essentially was the plan to topple Castro.

Three days later, James Reston, then the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, wrote in a column that considered the moral dimensions of an assault on the Castro regime. Reston’s column said that “while the papers have been full of reports of U.S. aid to overthrow Castro, the moral and legal aspects of the question have scarcely been mentioned.”

Other news organizations, including the Miami Herald and New York Herald Tribune, reported on pre-invasion preparations as well, all of which prompted Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, to recall in a memoir a few years later:

“To declare in mid-April of 1961 that I knew nothing of the impending military action against Cuba except what I read in the newspapers or heard on the air was to claim an enormous amount of knowledge.”

WJC

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Hearst, Garrison Keillor, and ‘furnish the war': Celebrities and media myths

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Quotes, Spanish-American War on April 29, 2015 at 8:44 am

Wasn’t I just blogging about celebrities pushing media myths?

Today brought another entry to that dubious lineup.

Keillor_WritersAlmanac

On his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, Garrison Keillor blithely retold the hoary media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The occasion for Keillor’s myth-indulgence was the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth in San Francisco.

“In 1898,” Keillor smugly told listeners, “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 discussed in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Let’s revisit some of the many reasons.

For starters, Hearst denied sending such a message (a denial usually overlooked or ignored) and Remington apparently never discussed it.

Hearst

Hearst: Denial ignored

What’s more, as I point out in Getting It Wrong, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message, had it been sent.

The sole original source for the “furnish the war” anecdote was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author was James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

Nor did he say exactly when the presumed Remington-Hearst exchange took place, writing only that it was “some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana” in mid-February 1898. The only time Remington was in Cuba before the explosion that destroyed the Maine was in January 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s flamboyant New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule.

The rebellion was the antecedent to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The timing of Remington’s trip to Cuba in early 1897 further undercuts the “furnish the war” anecdote: It presents an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, as it would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

As Keillor’s podcast suggests, the “furnish the war” anecdote is a delicious tale, easy to retell, and easy to believe. Like nearly all media myths, it resides on the cusp of plausibility; it corresponds well to the superficial and misleading image of Hearst as war-monger, as the unscrupulous newspaper publisher who fomented the Spanish-American War.

And that, too, is a tenacious media-driven myth.

WJC

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Celebrities pushing media myths: Cavett’s turn in NYTimes

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 27, 2015 at 6:46 am

It’s striking how prominent politicians, entertainers, and celebrities contribute to the recycling and, thus, the solidifying of media-driven myths, those hoary and exaggerated tales that often tell of magnificent deeds by journalists.

During his vice presidency, gaffe-prone Joe Biden went to Moscow and repeated the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, about how, in his words, “it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

DickCavett

Cavett: Pushing the Cronkite myth

He was referring to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in August 1974.

The claim is absurd, but it has resonance across the political spectrum. Last year, for example, Rush Limbaugh, the voluble conservative talk-radio host, indulged in the heroic-journalist myth, declaring on his show last year that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post “destroyed the Nixon presidency.”

That’s an interpretation not even Woodward embraces. He once told an interviewer: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

Now comes Dick Cavett, the former television talk show host, who in a shrill and shallow commentary posted recently at the New York Times online site, recycles the media myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when an analysis of the CBS News anchorman about the Vietnam War supposedly brought an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Cavett writes in what is a sneering and superficial assessment of the Vietnam conflict:

“At long, long last the war was ended.

“Not by a president or a Congress or by the protesters. Someone said it was the only war in history ever ended by a journalist.

“‘The Most Trusted Man in America,’ Walter Cronkite, not always a critic of the war, went to see the damage of the Tet offensive, came back, and said on his news broadcast that we had to get out. The beleaguered Lyndon Johnson’s reported reaction: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

Cavett commentary_NYT

From Cavett’s commentary

So let’s unpack that bundle of myth and exaggeration.

The reference to “only war in history ever ended by a journalist” sounds much like David Halberstam’s hyperbolic and unsourced claim in his book, The Powers That Be, that Cronkite’s analysis about Vietnam “was the first time in history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Moreover, the notion that Cronkite reigned as America’s “most trusted man” rests more on advertising by CBS News, his employer, than on persuasive empirical evidence such as representative survey samples.

As for Cavett’s claim that Cronkite “said on his news broadcast that we had to get out” — well, that’s not what Cronkite said.

The claim refers to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which CBS aired on February 27, 1968. At the close of the program, Cronkite said the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might prove to be a way out.

It was hardly a call for withdrawal.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson with Connolly: Not watching Cronkite

It was in fact a tepid reiteration of the thinking prevalent in the news media at the time: The war was stalemated. The New York Times had been saying as much periodically for months.

Finally, there’s no compelling evidence that President Lyndon Johnson reacted to Cronkite’s assessment by declaring in a flash of insight:

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

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired, and there is no evidence he saw it on videotape at some later date.

Johnson that night was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, attending a black-tie birthday party for his longtime political ally, Texas Governor John Connolly.

About the time Cronkite’s was intoning his tired “mired in stalemate” observation, the president was making light of Connolly’s age.

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

WJC

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Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2015 at 6:30 pm

With a bit of routine fact-checking, news organizations usually can sidestep the embarrassment of trading in prominent media myths.

But, no: The narrative power of many media myths often makes them too good to check. And so the myth gets retold.

Consider the latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsmagazine. In an extended report about family-run companies, the Economist offers up the simplistic and ever-appealing myth that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought low in the 1970s by the Washington Post, then owned by Katharine Graham and family.

Economist cover“Under her iron reign,” the Economist says of Graham, “the Washington Post brought down President Nixon with its investigation into the Watergate break-in and challenged the New York Times for the title of America’s most illustrious newspaper.”

The last claim, about challenging the New York Times, might have been true, for a while. But no more. And there’s no way the Post brought down” Nixon.

Katharine Graham herself said as much, at the 25th anniversary of the break-in in June 1972 of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the scandal’s seminal crime.

Speaking at an event in suburban Virginia, at the original Newseum (humble predecessor to the $450 million edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue), Graham insisted that the Post had not toppled Nixon.

“Sometimes,” she said, “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’s comment is not difficult to track down. It’s in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, and I have incorporated the quote in many blog posts at Media Myth Alert, including those here, here, here, and here.

Graham was quite right about the processes that forced Nixon’s resignation (he quit in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives).

And over the years, Graham’s views have been echoed by other principals at the newspaper.

Ben Bradlee, the executive editor during and after the Watergate period, likewise rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down the president, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the many hours of White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the DNC headquarters.)

Howard Kurtz, formerly the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office ….”

And Bob Woodward, one of the newspaper’s lead reporters on Watergate, once told American Journalism Review:

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

It is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It notably did not disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It likewise failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes. Indeed, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important, I wrote, were “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.”

And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the tapes — the existence of which was revealed by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Its latest issue is not the first in which the Economist has indulged in Watergate mythology. In October, shortly after his death, the newsmagazine published a tribute to Bradlee, beneath a headline that read:

“The editor who toppled Nixon.”

That mythical claim appeared in the text of the eulogy as well.

WJC

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Cronkite, public opinion, and Vietnam: LATimes overstates the link

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Photographs, Television on February 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Today is the anniversary of the mythicalCronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s assessment about the war in Vietnam supposedly had powerful effects on viewers and non-viewers alike.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Cronkite’s report of February 27, 1968, “shifted public opinion on the war.”

But it didn’t. Not demonstrably, not measurably.

The “shifted public opinion” claim is embedded in the Times’ profile of Scott Pelley, a successor to Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

The profile, posted online yesterday, mentions photographs on Pelley’s office walls, images that include “Walter Cronkite in Vietnam for his documentary that shifted public opinion on the war.”

What CBS aired 47 years ago tonight was a special, hour-long news report about the Tet offensive launched at the end of January 1968. The communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies struck then across South Vietnam and the extent of their attacks surprised the American public, which had been told the U.S. military was making significant progress in the war.

The offensive prompted Cronkite to travel to Vietnam to gather material for his special report, which he closed by declaring the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” — a tepid characterization that hardly was very original.

Cronkite also suggested in his wrap-up assessment that negotiations might eventually prove to be a way out of the war. Nor was that a particularly bold suggestion.

In time, though, Cronkite’s report came to be thought of as legendary, as exceptional, as the “Cronkite Moment.” It has become barnacled with media myth.

It is often said the President Lyndon Johnson was at the White House that night (he was in Texas), that he watched Cronkite’s report (he did not), and that Cronkite’s assessment prompted him to say something to the effect of “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” (there’s no evidence he said anything of the sort, and it’s hard to believe the president was much moved by a report he did not see).

As for the notion that Cronkite’s analysis altered American public opinion about the war, supporting evidence is extremely thin.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun declining months before the Cronkite report. That shift was evident by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

A little more than two years earlier, 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 detected a softening in support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the 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.”

So Cronkite’s report had little demonstrable effect on Americans’ views about Vietnam. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on the war.

WJC

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Maureen Dowd misremembers the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Quotes on February 9, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Maureen Dowd marred an otherwise intriguing column in yesterday’s New York Times by mischaracterizing what is known as the “Cronkite Moment.”

Dowd_Twitter

Dowd (from Twitter)

The column considered the bizarre falsehoods that Brian Williams, the now-on-leave anchor of NBC Nightly News, has told about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: He wrongly claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while,” Dowd wrote, adding:

“NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.”

In any case, she wrote, network evening news programs have long been shells of their much-watched former selves.

“Frothy morning shows long ago became the more important anchoring real estate, garnering more revenue and subsidizing the news division,” Dowd noted before declaring:

“One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he 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.

Dowd did not specify when Cronkite supposedly “risked his career” as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she clearly was referring to Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam that aired in February 1968, after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched an offensive across what then was South Vietnam. The attacks coincided with the lunar new year Tet, and their intensity surprised the U.S. public, which had been assured that significant progress was being made in the fight in Vietnam.

Cronkite said in his memoir that he went to Vietnam to offer “an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” He shared his findings upon his return, in a 30-minute report shown on CBS television on February 27, 1968. It was his most memorable if mythical contribution to reporting the war.

Cronkite concluded the report with an analysis that was unusual for him but striking only for its equivocation.

He declared:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Equivocal though it was, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” analysis rejected the notion the U.S. military was headed for defeat.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s observations that night were “neither notable nor extraordinary.”

Stalemate was hardly a novel characterization for the war in early 1968.

Nearly seven months before Cronkite’s report, for example, the New York Times published a front-page analysis that said the war in Vietnam “is not going well,” that victory “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

The Times analysis, which was filed from Vietnam and published August 7, 1967, further declared:

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

The analysis appeared beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

 So it was not at all courageous of Cronkite to have invoked “stalemate” when he did.

How, then, did such a tepid, belated assessment come to be so celebrated that it is known as the “Cronkite Moment”? How did it become associated with truth-telling about Vietnam, as Dowd claimed in her column?

In part because of the grandiloquent characterizations by the likes of David Halberstam, who praised Cronkite’s on-air analysis in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be. He wrote that the Cronkite program marked “the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman.”

Which hardly was the case. The last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, five years later. The war ended in 1975, when the North Vietnamese military conquered the South.

Another reason it’s called the “Cronkite Moment” is the effect that the anchorman’s analysis supposedly had on President Johnson. According to Halberstam and others, Johnson watched the program at the White House. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president is said to have snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

But in fact, Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night; he wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

It is difficult to fathom how Johnson could have been much moved by a program he did not see.

WJC

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

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

LBJ: Nothing to say about Cronkite

It’s disputed, but what the heck?

Use it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s unpack that myth-freighted paragraph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He further said:

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

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

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

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

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

The Times analysis, filed from Vietnam, further declared:

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

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

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

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

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

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

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

It is illusory. It is mythical.

WJC

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