W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

Jessica Lynch, the Fin Times, and ‘big propaganda stories’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 3, 2014 at 6:51 am

It is well-understood that the tale of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics in Iraq in 2003 was bogus.

Much less well-understood is how the story of her purported derring-do entered the public domain.

Many accounts of the exaggerated hero-warrior tale blame the U.S. government or the U.S. military — or simply the U.S. — for cynically attempting to turn Lynch, then-19-year-old Army supply clerk, into a wartime hero.

Far fewer accounts identify the real source of error — a botched report published 11 years ago today in the Washington Post.

Lynch_headline_Post

Page one 11 years ago: The Post’s botched story

Most recently to err in describing the derivation of the Lynch saga is London’s Financial Times, a sophisticated newspaper printed on distinctive salmon-colored newsprint.

The Financial Times ruminated in a commentary the other day about “the power of peace” and included this vague yet pointed accusation:

“During the Iraq war, the US told two big propaganda stories about individual heroes, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. Both stories proved false.”

How so, “the US”? The commentary doesn’t say.

In the case of Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger and former professional football player, the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command said that he had been killed by enemy gunfire in 2004, in Afghanistan. A subsequent Defense Department investigation determined his death was caused by friendly fire.

But in the Lynch case, it was the Washington Post — not “the US,” and certainly not the U.S. military — that was the source of the bogus report.

In a front-page article published April 3, 2003, the Post claimed that Lynch had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers” and continued firing her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition” and was captured.

The Post declared that Lynch suffered “multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her” in fighting in which 11 U.S. soldiers were killed.

The Post cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” as sources for the electrifying account of the young woman’s heroism.

As it turned out, the hero-warrior tale — written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb — was wrong in almost every major respect. The ambush did occur, on March 23, 2003, in the first days of the Iraq War. But Lynch did not fire her weapon in the attack. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

Lynch was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the escape. She was taken to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Lynch in 2003

Lynch in 2003

The Post has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its erroneous report. But as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Loeb did make clear that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

In an interview with NPR in December 2003, Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Over the years, though, the role of the Post in propelling Lynch into unwarranted international fame has receded in favor of a false narrative that the Pentagon made it all up.

What accounts for this transformation? Why has the Post’s singular role in the Lynch case been so thoroughly eclipsed?

One reason is that it’s perversely delicious and sinister to assert that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale about Lynch and somehow fed it to gullible news outlets. That’s a far more engaging story than that of mangled newspaper reporting.

Another reason is that the Post, on occasion, has been complicit in muddying its decisive contribution to Lynch fable.

The newspaper has been known to characterize the hero-warrior tale as one that other news media were telling, too. That’s true, but only after the Post published the story that made Lynch, quite undeservedly, the best-known Army private of the Iraq War.

Eleven years on, the Post has never adequately explained how it so thoroughly botched its report about Lynch.

WJC

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NYCity new mayor gushes over Bernstein, Woodward and their putative contributions to Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Bill de Blasio, New York’s recently inaugurated mayor, fairly gushed at a news conference yesterday about Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, and their putative roles in unraveling the Watergate scandal, saying the duo exerted a major influence on his life.

De Blasio credited Bernstein and Woodward, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, for having “framed and, you know, created” conditions that gave rise to the Senate select committee’s hearings on Watergate during the summer of 1973. Those hearings are regarded as crucial in deepening public understanding about Watergate.

deBlasio

de Blasio

“I always say I’m a child of the Watergate summer,” de Blasio declared at the news conference. “And I had an extraordinary experience a year or two ago when I first met Carl Bernstein who’s, I think, one of the people … who had the biggest impact on my life, with Bob Woodward. Because for any of us who were deeply affected by that moment in history, those two individuals framed and, you know, created that moment so much and so deeply.”

The mayor’s soliloquy was prompted by a reporter’s question about whether de Blasio ever considered becoming a journalist. “I did, for a bit,” the mayor said, “never overly coherently.”

What most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

It wasn’t.

Indeed, it’s highly questionable whether Bernstein and Woodward much contributed to — let alone “framed” or “created” — conditions that gave rise to the 1973 Watergate hearings. By then, there were many other, more powerful and subpoena-wielding forces at work seeking to unravel the unfolding scandal.

As I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Bernstein and Woodward to Watergate’s outcome — to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard Nixon — were minimal and certainly not decisive.

It’s instructive to note the decisive elements of the scandal that Bernstein and Woodward did not disclose.

They did not, for example, break the news about hush payments to the burglars who committed the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward disclose that Nixon secretly made audiorecordings of most of his private conversations at the Oval Office. The White House tapes were pivotal to Watergate’s denouement, revealing that Nixon conspired to obstruct the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

The existence of the tapes was revealed by the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, in the midst of the “Watergate summer,” which de Blasio recalled yesterday as “one of the most riveting things that’s happened in the history of the republic.”

The hearings, the mayor said, represented “an affirmation of democracy. It was an affirmation of what good elected leaders can do, even if the face of tremendous odds. It certainly was an affirmation of the role of the media in our society.”

To the last claim — probably not.

De Blasio was not asked at the news conference to elaborate on his extravagant remarks about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate, remarks that all but embraced the myth of the heroic journalist.

Not to mention the “golden age” fallacy.

WJC

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Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.

Murrow

Murrow

They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.

WJC

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Getting it right about ‘Is There a Santa Claus?’

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Sun, Quotes on December 25, 2013 at 2:52 pm

The paean to childhood and the Christmas spirit published in 1897 in the old New York Sun long ago became the best-known, most-reprinted editorial in American journalism. It also is decidedly myth-prone, as recent newspaper descriptions of the legendary editorial suggest.

These descriptions have misidentified the editorial’s title as well as details about its derivation and its author. Surely, can’t be churlish to expect newspapers to get it right about a newspaper commentary of unrivaled exceptionality.

Is There_NYSunThe editorial was published September 21, 1897, beneath the single-column headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” Its title was not “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus,” as Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote the other day in a commentary for the Tampa Bay Times. (Clark’s commentary, incidentally, began by asserting: “Good reporters have always checked things out.”)

The phrase “Yes, Virginia,” introduces the editorial’s most memorable and eloquent passage, which reads:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

The editorial was inspired by the letter of a New York City girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, who, years later, recalled the excited speculation that prompted her to write to the Sun. “My birthday was in July,” she said, “and, as a child, I just existed from July to December, wondering what Santa Claus would bring me.”

She composed her letter not in the autumn of 1897, as is often assumed, but shortly after turning eight-years-old in July that year. She implored the Sun to tell her “the truth” about Santa Claus.

As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, it is probable that Virginia’s letter was overlooked, or misplaced, for an extended period after reaching the Sun. In any case, the Sun certainly did not publish a “quick response” to Virginia, as the San Jose Mercury News claimed yesterday in reprinting the editorial.

We know this because that Virginia had said she eagerly anticipated a reply but after weeks of waiting, gave up and figured the Sun would not respond. “After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in Connecticut in the late 1950s, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Her letter finally reached Francis P. Church, a veteran editorial writer for the Sun who, according to an account by Edward P. Mitchell, the newspaper’s editorial page editor, took on the assignment grudgingly.

Mitchell wrote in a memoir that Church “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply to Virginia O’Hanlon; but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”

He wrote the famous editorial in the course of a day’s work, without an inkling that it would come to be celebrated by generations of readers.

Church was a retiring and diffident man, comfortable amid the anonymity of the editorial page. It is sometimes said that his motto was: “Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated as much Monday.

But that almost certainly was not his motto. The epigram about cant appeared in an obituary about Church, published in the New York Times on April 13, 1906. In it, the Times said that Church “might have taken for his own motto, ‘Endeavor to clear your mind of cant.”’ Might have.

Francis P. Church

Church
(Courtesy Century Club)

Church’s authorship of the famous editorial was revealed by the Sun shortly after his death, in an exceptional and moving tribute published April 12, 1906.

“At this time, with the sense of personal loss strong upon us,” the newspaper said of Church, “we know of no better or briefer way to make the friends of the Sun feel that they too have lost a friend than to violate custom by indicating him as the author of the beautiful and often republished editorial article affirming the existence of Santa Claus, in reply to the question of a little girl.”

So why does Church’s reply to Virginia O’Hanlon live on like no other editorial commentary? What has made it sui generis? These are among the reasons:

  • The editorial is cheering and reaffirming, a commentary without villains or sinister elements. It is a rich and searching intellectual discussion as well.
  • It represents a connection to a time long past; it is reassuring somehow to recognize that sentiments appealing to newspaper readers at the end of the 19th century remain appealing today.
  • It offers a moving reminder to adults about Christmases past, and the times when they, too, were believers.
  • It has proven a way for generations of parents to address the skepticism of their children about Santa Claus. They can point to the editorial and its timeless answer to an inevitable question – and not really have to fib about the existence of Santa.

WJC

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Editor’s little-noted memoir offers intriguing insight about WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

It’s mentioned on few if any “books of the year” lists, but the recent memoir by a former Washington Post editor offers revealing insights about the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, describing how one of them, Carl Bernstein, was such a slacker that he was nearly dismissed in the early 1970s.

Rosenfeld memoir_coverThe memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate, is Harry Rosenfeld’s telling of his long career in newspapering. He was the Post’s metropolitan editor during Watergate and managed Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in 1972 and 1973 were the newspaper’s lead reporters on the unfolding scandal.

Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Or so the media myth has it.

Rosenfeld comes close in his book to embracing the myth of Watergate, stating that the Post “played a key role in assisting the ship of state to stay the course while navigating through the stormy waters of a constitutional crisis” that brought Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He makes scant acknowledgement of the more powerful investigative forces — congressional and judicial — that combined to uncover Nixon’s criminal misconduct and bring an end to his presidency.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome were modest at best.

Rosenfeld writes with evident pride about Woodward and the “intensity of his work habits.” By the time the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Rosenfeld says, Woodward “had established himself as a fully qualified reporter, sharper than most and more ambitious and hardworking than any.”

The most delicious passages of Rosenfeld’s book discuss Bernstein’s troubled times at the Post during the period before and shortly after the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein, he writes, routinely antagonized his editors, was known for missing deadlines while regularly logging many hours of unapproved overtime, and was notorious for failing to submit expense reports. He also had a tendency on assignments to rent cars that he was slow to return, running up late charges for the Post.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

After such a caper in the summer of 1972, the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and its managing editor, Howard Simons, wanted Rosenfeld to fire Bernstein. He had “yet again rented a car and left it stranded in a parking lot for days, with costly rental fees mounting by the hour,” Rosenfeld writes.

But Rosenfeld demurred, telling the editors that dismissing Bernstein made no sense when, “‘for once in his life, Carl is producing the goods’” in reporting on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Bernstein kept his job.

Rosenfeld had laid groundwork for dismissing Bernstein in 1971, after the reporter had failed to submit an article about the port of Norfolk, VA, despite his many promises to produce the story.

Rosenfeld sat in on what he called “a heart-to-heart” conversation between Bernstein and his then-editor, Kevin Klose, who later became dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

After the heart-to-heart, Rosenfeld wrote in a memorandum that it had been made clear to Bernstein “‘that he either begins to be a productive reporter or he and the Post better go separate ways and that if cannot soon come to grips with his responsibilities to his job, that I would move against him on negligence of duty. …’”

Bernstein, Rosenfeld wrote in the memorandum, “‘understood that if he could not become productive and that if he and his editors continued to be antagonistic all the time, it would be better for him to leave. He said that … I would see a much changed man.’

“That new man,” Rosenfeld says, “clearly emerged in Watergate — a full year after his pledge. In the course of Watergate, the tiger changed his stripes, the leopard his spots, and Joshua commanded the sun not to set and the moon to stand still. The transformation was that epic. …. If he had persisted in his old ways … he almost surely would have been fired, for which the legal groundwork had been laid.”

Still, Bernstein’s redemption was less than total. Even when doing his best work, Rosenfeld notes in the book, Bernstein “still managed to remain irritating.”

So why, more than 40 years afterward,  is all of this important?

As Rosenfeld notes, it is “worth contemplating” how Bernstein — who remains one of America’s best-known and most outspoken journalists — nearly missed having an “historic role” in the Watergate story. Rosenfeld’s memoir also demonstrates how unpopular Bernstein was in the Post’s newsroom.

More important is that Rosenfeld’s unflattering characterizations, which clearly are offered not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way that Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not do in their bestselling 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

Finally, the passages about Bernstein serves as a reminder that the most engaging memoirs are those not sanitized. Although the book has not received wide attention, Rosenfeld’s memoir is commendable for its candor about Bernstein.

WJC

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Arrogance: WaPo won’t correct dubious claim about Nixon ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on August 13, 2013 at 8:44 am
A landmark?

Arrogant

Finally, after more than 2½ weeks, the Washington Post’s reader representative” replied to my email pointing to a dubious claim in the newspaper’s front-page obituary last month about journalist Helen Thomas.

The Post said in the obituary that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

I asked the obituary’s author, Patricia Sullivan, and the newspaper’s reader representative, Doug Feaver, to identify when Thomas posed such a question.

Neither has done so.

Instead, Feaver asserted in his recent email to me: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Talk about arrogance.

At issue here are two related matters.

One is the Post’s assertion in the obituary published July 21 that Thomas once asked Nixon about his “secret plan” for Vietnam.

The other is the broader notion that Nixon in 1968 ran for president saying he had a “secret plan.”

To the first point: There is no question about what the Post wrote. And there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question.

The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon  about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. She did not ask about a “secret plan.”

Feaver in his email to me noted that the obituary did not place the phrase “secret plan” inside quotation marks.

As if that matters at all.

With or without quotation marks, the Post made a claim in the obituary that it hasn’t been able to back up.

Moreover, in asserting the dubious claim about a “secret plan,” the Post effectively has embraced the persistent but historically inaccurate notion about the 1968 election campaign.

That notion is that Nixon said he had a plan to end the war but wouldn’t disclose what he had in mind. Sullivan, the author of the Thomas obituary, has embraced this notion, stating in an email to me in late July:

“I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail. Hence it was dubbed his ‘secret plan’ to end the war, and is widely referenced as such in the news articles of the time, many of which I reviewed while writing this obit (in 2008).”

But that’s just not so: News reports of the time did not “widely” refer to Nixon’s having a “secret plan,” as a search of a full-content database of historical newspapers reveals.

The database covers 1968 and includes content of the Post and several other leading U.S. dailies. Searching the database for “Nixon” and “secret plan” or “secret plans” produces no evidence at all to support the notion that Nixon in 1968 touted or otherwise campaigned on a “secret plan.”

Likewise, the leading book-length treatments of the 1968 presidential campaign — Theodore White’s The Making of a President, 1968, and Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President say nothing about Nixon’s “secret plan.” (Searching the books’ contents through Amazon.com turned up no reference to “secret plan.”)

Had the purported “secret plan” been an issue of any consequence during the 1968 campaign, the country’s leading newspapers and those books about the election surely would have discussed it.

It should be noted that Nixon was asked publicly in late March 1968 about a “secret plan” for Vietnam. He replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

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

So the challenge to the Post remains: If it can identify an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan,” please do so. That would represent a modest but interesting contribution to historians’ understanding of Nixon’s 1968 campaign pledges about the Vietnam War. It would suggest that journalists at the time were openly suspicious about his prospective war policy.

If, on the other, the Post cannot back up the “secret plan” claim — a claim clearly stated in its obituary — then a correction should be made.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Correction or clarification needed in WaPo reference to Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post on July 27, 2013 at 1:57 pm
WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

Portion of WaPo’s front-page obit about Thomas

The Washington Post needs to correct or clarify a questionable claim in its recent glowing obituary about journalist Helen Thomas.

The obituary stated that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank” about “his secret plan to end the Vietnam War.”

I have asked the obituary’ author, Patricia Sullivan, when and where Thomas posed such a question, but Sullivan has not offered a direct reply.

As noted in a Media Myth Alert post on Sunday, the nearest reference I could find to Thomas’ having raised such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. According to a transcript the Post published the following day, Thomas asked:

“Mr. President, what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” She did not ask about a secret plan.

The issue here is larger than a likely error in a front-page obituary.

The more important issue centers around the notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 saying he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. That notion is historically imprecise. Yet it circulates still, as evidence supposedly of Nixon’s duplicity.

There’s better evidence of his duplicity than the “secret plan” chestnut. Simply put, Nixon did not tout a “secret plan” for Vietnam during his 1968 campaign.

I sent Sullivan an email a week ago (when the obituary was posted online), asking when and where Thomas had questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” Five days later, Sullivan replied by email, saying:

“I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail. Hence it was dubbed his ‘secret plan’ to end the war, and is widely referenced as such in the news articles of the time, many of which I reviewed while writing this obit (in 2008).”

I sent Sullivan a follow-up email, asking again when and where Thomas questioned Nixon about a “secret plan.” She has not replied to that query.

Meantime, I consulted a database containing full-text content of leading U.S. daily newspapers, and found almost no reporting in 1968 and early 1969 about Nixon’s having, or claiming to have, a “secret plan.”

The combined search terms “Nixon,” “secret plan” and “Vietnam” produced only three returns — an advertisement taken out by Democrats,  an article about Nelson Rockefeller’s plans to run for president, and a brief wire service item in the Post that quoted a Democratic congressman as urging Nixon to discuss his “secret plan” on Vietnam. The search period was January  1, 1968, through February 1, 1969, a time span covering the 1968 campaign, Nixon’s inauguration, and his news conference in late January 1969. Newspapers in the database include the New York TimesLos Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street  Journal, and the Washington Post.

Searching the same period for “Nixon,” “secret plans” and “Vietnam” produced one return, an article published in the Los Angeles Times in which Nixon insisted he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for ending the war.

The article further quoted Nixon as saying:

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

The database search makes clear that Nixon’s having a “secret plan” was not, contrary to Sullivan’s claim in her email, “widely referenced” in news articles at that time.

Additionally, neither The Making of the President 1968  nor The Selling of the President – major book-length treatments about the 1968 presidential election — contain the phrase “secret plan” or “secret plans.” (Neither phrase turned up in applying the Amazon.com “search inside” feature to those books.)

If Sullivan can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon “point-blank” about having a “secret plan” on Vietnam, then that would represent an interesting if modest contribution to our understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists then suspected he was less than candid and forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, Sullivan cannot identify such an occasion, then a correction seems in order.

As I say, the Post’s obituary was glowing, so glowing it took until the 12th paragraph to mention Thomas’ anti-Semitic remarks in 2010 — hateful words that effectively ended her career.

A far more searching and clear-eyed assessment of Thomas and her journalism was offered in Jonathan S. Tobin’s essay for Commentary magazine.

“Thomas’s prejudice was not a minor flaw,” Tobin wrote, referring to her anti-Semitic comments. “It was a symptom not only of her Jew-hatred but also of a style of journalism that was brutally partisan and confrontational.”

Thomas, he wrote, deserves a “share of the credit for the creation of an ugly spirit of partisanship that characterizes much of the press.”

Indeed.

WJC

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WaPo, Helen Thomas, and Nixon’s ‘secret plan’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on July 21, 2013 at 11:55 am

Today’s Washington Post carries a lengthy obituary about Helen Thomas, lauding the 92-year-old former White House reporter who died yesterday for her “unparalleled experience covering the presidency.”

A glowing tribute to Helen Thomas

WaPo’s glowing tribute to Helen Thomas

What caught the eye of Media Myth Alert was the Post’s unsourced claim that Thomas had once asked President Richard M. Nixon “point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.” I sent an email yesterday to Patricia Sullivan, author of Thomas obituary, asking about the unsourced claim; she has not replied.

The only proximate reference I could find to Thomas’s having posed such a question was at a White House news conference on January 27, 1969. Given her seniority, Thomas was granted the first question.

“Mr. President,” she asked, “what is your peace plan for Vietnam?” Peace plan, not secret plan.

According to a transcript of the news conference that the Washington Post published the following day, Nixon focused his response on the Vietnam peace talks then underway in Paris.

The issue here is greater than a possible error in a glowing tribute — so glowing that the obituary waits until the 12th paragraph to mention Thomas’ ugly remarks about Jews, which ended her career in 2010.

The notion that Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War is a hoary assertion that circulates still, often invoked as telling evidence of Nixon’s duplicity. The claim is of thin grounding.

Helen Thomas embraced the tale, though, writing in her wretched 2006 book, Watchdogs of Democracy?:

“Throughout that campaign in 1968 … Nixon said he had a ‘secret’ plan to end the war. Reporters never got to ask him what it was. Not until he got into the White House did we learn it was Vietnamization — to try to turn the fighting over to the South Vietnamese.”

But Nixon was asked during the campaign whether he had a secret plan to end the war.  According to a report published by the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

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

A fairly detailed assessment of the “secret war” tale was published in 2000 by William Safire, a columnist for the New York Times and a former Nixon speechwriter. Safire wrote:

“That sinister phrase — secret plan — has resonance to veteran rhetoricians and students of presidential campaigns. In the 1968 primaries, candidate Richard Nixon was searching for a way to promise he would extricate the U.S. from its increasingly unpopular involvement in Vietnam. The key verb to be used was end, though it would be nice to get the verb win in some proximity to it.

“One speechwriter came up with the formulation that ‘new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific.’ Nixon made it part of his stump speech, and the juxtaposition of end and win — though it did not claim to intend to win the war, but only the peace ….

“When a U.P.I. reporter pressed Nixon for specifics, the candidate demurred; the reporter wrote that it seemed Nixon was determined to keep his plan secret, though he did not quote Nixon as having said either secret or plan. But …  it became widely accepted that Nixon had said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’”

The lead paragraph of the United Press International report to which Safire referred stated:

“Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon vowed Tuesday [March 5, 1968] that if elected president, he would ‘end the war’ in Vietnam. He did not spell out how.”

It does sound a bit slippery, a bit Nixonian. But it’s no claim of a “secret plan.” So there seems little substance to the notion, which Thomas embraced in her book, that Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a “secret plan” to end the war.

WJC

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The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed

In Anniversaries, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Forty years ago this week, Alexander Butterfield told a U.S. Senate select committee investigating the Watergate scandal that President Richard Nixon had installed a secret audiotaping system in his offices.

Butterfield’s disclosure was one of the most decisive moments in the Watergate. It focused the scandal’s multiple investigations into a months-long pursuit of the tapes — one of which clearly revealed Nixon’s role in attempting to cover up the crimes of Watergate. That revelation forced his resignation in August 1974.

The disclosure of Nixon’s audiotaping system was a major story which the Washington Post — often and inaccurately credited with having “uncovered” or “broken” the Watergate scandal — missed badly.

How the Post fumbled that story makes for an intriguing sidebar at the anniversary of Butterfield’s stunning disclosure. The newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, described in a book about their reporting how leads about the taping system were not pursued.

The book, All the President’s Men, says that Woodward had found out about private testimony that Butterfield had given to staff members of the select committee and he called Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, for guidance.

The call to Bradlee was on a Saturday night. After outlining what he knew, Woodward, according to the book, said:

“We’ll go to work on it, if you want.”

In reply, Bradlee is quoted as saying with some slight irritation, “Well, I don’t know.”

How would you rate the prospective story? Woodward asked him.

“B-plus,” Bradlee replied.

Woodward figured a B-plus wasn’t much, according to the book.

“See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it,” Bradlee is quoted as instructing Woodward.

And Woodward didn’t “bust one.”

Two days later, on July 16, 1973, Butterfield made his reluctant disclosure at a public session of the Senate select committee.

The following day, according to All the President’s Men, Bradlee conceded that the lead about the taping system was “more than a B-plus.”

The anecdote from All the President’s Men is suggestive of the overall minor role that the Post played in uncovering Watergate. As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the 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 plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

All the President’s Men was revealing in other ways about the work and conduct of Woodward and Bernstein. Media critic Jack Shafer, in a column in 2004, revisited a number of reporting flaws and ethical lapses that Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged in their book.

It’s a roster of transgressions that is too-little remembered.

WJC

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Mistaking conspiracy for sloppy history in Hearst’s ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 29, 2013 at 3:31 pm

The media myth of William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain has proved irresistible in a number of ways.

Hearst in the late 1890s

Hearst, activist publisher

The vow has been invoked as evidence of the sketchy character of Hearst, an activist newspaper publisher whose “yellow journalism” brought him prominence in the closing years of the 19th century.

The vow has been cited to illustrate the potential malignant power of the news media — that at their worst, they can bring on a war.

And in a column in the weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal, the vow is offered as evidence of how conspiracy theories can double back on their makers.

Or something like that.

The fuzzy conspiracy argument is advanced by Amanda Foreman, an historian who writes the Journal’s “historically speaking” column. The latest column is of interest to Media Myth Alert in that it offers an unusual twist to Hearst’s mythical vow.

Not that Foreman is all that persuasive in advancing her conspiracy argument. What she sees as conspiracy looks a lot like sloppy history.

Like all media myths, the “furnish the war” anecdote has some factual scaffolding. But Foreman misstates a key factual element in the tale, which stems from a reputed exchange of telegrams between Hearst and the artist Frederic Remington, who went to Cuba in early 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal.

Remington’s assignment was to draw sketches of the island-wide Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule. Soon, supposedly, the artist sought permission to return to New York, saying in a telegram that “everything is quiet.”

Hearst, in reply, is said to have told Remington:

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

Remington left Cuba anyway, and his sketches of the Cuban rebellion began appearing in the Journal in late January 1897.

Foreman in her column writes that Hearst was both “peddler and victim of the same conspiracy theory.”

span-am war_journal

Wasn’t the Journal’s war

She says he promoted the notion that he fomented the conflict with Spain by proclaiming in the New York Journal in May 1898: “How do you like the Journal’s war?” But in that epigram, the Journal was taunting its rivals, not claiming responsibility for the war — an important distinction that will be discussed in some detail below.

Foreman writes that “when critics started labeling Hearst a warmonger, he became the victim of his own success” of having advanced the notion he had fomented the war.

She then introduces the “furnish the war” vow, calling it “a fictitious communiqué” that “remains the single-most quoted proof that Hearst engineered the Spanish-American War.”

Foreman says the “chief problem” with the Remington-Hearst anecdote “is that Remington was nowhere near Cuba at the time.”

But Remington was in Cuba before the war — for six days in January 1897. That he was there, on assignment for Hearst, is a component of the factual scaffolding of the “furnish the war” tale, which entered the public domain in 1901, in a book by James Creelman.

He was a journalist known for hyperbole and bluster. And he recounted the anecdote without documentation, writing:

“Some time before the destruction of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana [in February 1898], the New York Journal sent Frederic Remington, the distinguished artist, to Cuba. He was instructed to remain there until the war began; for ‘yellow journalism’ was alert and had an eye for the future.”

Creelman then described the purported Remington-Hearst exchange of telegrams, invoking it to praise the aggressive, anticipatory character of Hearst’s “yellow journalism.” Only years later did Creelman’s unsourced anecdote become popular as evidence of Hearst’s perfidy.

While Hearst for a time in 1898 may have thought that he had brought about the war with Spain, supporting evidence is not to be found in the pithy epigram that Foreman cites.

As I discuss in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, context and timing matter in evaluating the epigram, which appeared in the upper-left corner, or left ear, of the New York Journal on May 8, 9, and 10, 1898.

The epigram

The Journal’s taunt

In asking “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Hearst’s newspaper, I wrote, was not boasting but “mocking the claims” of its rivals — notably the anti-war New York Evening Post, which in an editorial published April 30, 1898, accused the Journal of fomenting the war.

The following day, U.S. naval vessels destroyed a Spanish squadron in Manila Bay in the war’s first major engagement.

First reports of the naval battle appeared in U.S. newspapers on May 2, 1898. That day on its editorial page, the Journal published the portion of the Evening Post editorial accusing the Journal of fomenting the war. That assertion was derided in a headline spread across the Journal’s editorial page, which stated:

“Some People Say the Journal Brought on This War. How Do You Like It as Far as It’s Gone[?] “

The headline and the epigram that appeared at the Journal’s left ear a few days later (“How do you like the Journal’s war?”) clearly were snarky retorts aimed at the Evening Post in the aftermath of a stunning U.S. naval victory.

When it did specifically address the notion of fomenting the war, Hearst’s Journal was far more oblique and ambiguous. For example, the newspaper stated in early May 1898:

“This war has been called a war brought on by the New York Journal and the press which it leads. This is merely another way of saying that the war is the war of the American people, for it is only as a newspaper gives voice to the American spirit that it can be influential with the American masses. The Journal is powerful with the masses because it believes in them — because it believes that on issues of national policy, their judgment is always likely to be sounder than that of the objecting few.”

The statement hardly qualifies as a ringing assertion of responsibility for bringing on the war.

WJC

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