W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’

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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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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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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WaPo still unable to keep details straight about Jessica Lynch case

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on January 10, 2015 at 2:15 pm

The newspaper that brought us the bogus story about the battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch during the Iraq War has goofed again in recounting details about the case.

Private Lynch

Lynch: Never fired a shot

The Washington Post — which erroneously claimed in early April 2003 that Lynch had fought fiercely despite being shot and stabbed in the ambush of her unit — mistakenly described in a blog post yesterday the circumstances of Lynch’s subsequent rescue from captivity.

Lynch was a supply clerk in the 507th Maintenance Company, which was attacked in Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Lynch, who never fired a shot in the ambush, was severely injured in the crash of a Humvee as she and four colleagues tried to escape. She was neither shot nor stabbed.

She was taken prisoner and held nine days at an Iraqi hospital before being rescued by a U.S. special operations team on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Post published its bogus, front-page report about Lynch’s purported derring-do on the battlefield, a story that cited otherwise anonymous “U.S. officials” and appeared beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

Yesterday, the Post’sCheckpoint” Web log erred in asserting that Lynch was one of several U.S. soldiers “held in captivity for 22 days before being rescued by Marines.” Lynch was not among those prisoners and her rescuers were special operations forces.

The “Checkpoint” post focused on about a talk given at a conference in San Antonio by Shoshana Johnson, who was shot in the ankles in the Nasiriyah ambush and also taken prisoner. Her rescue from captivity came more than a week after the operation that freed Lynch.

Conflating the cases of Lynch and Johnson obviously is not an error as significant as the Post’s report of April 3, 2003, which said Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

Still, the erroneous “Checkpoint” report is sloppy, and signals continued inattention to detail about the Lynch case.

One might think, given the embarrassment of the botched “fighting to the death” story, that Post reporters would be especially mindful about the details of the Lynch case.

And yet, the “Checkpoint” writeup wasn’t the first time in recent years that the newspaper has erred in referring to Lynch.

The Post invoked the Lynch case in 2010, in a movie review that disingenuously blamed the Pentagon for the bogus tale about Lynch’s heroics. Nearly seven weeks later, the newspaper published a belated and awkwardly worded correction about the review’s erroneous passage.

It is worth noting that the Post has never fully accounted for its botched hero-warrior story in 2003. It has never disclosed the identities of the anonymous sources who provided the salient details for a story so electrifying that was picked up by news organizations around the world.

The Post’s unwillingness to identify its sources contributed to the tenacity of a toxic narrative that the Pentagon concocted the story and somehow fed it to the Post in a crude attempt to boost U.S. public support for the war.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Vernon Loeb, who shared a byline on the Post’s hero-warrior story about Lynch, has said unequivocally that the anonymous sources were not Pentagon officials.

In an interview on NPR in December 2003, Loeb declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb, who then covered the military for the Post, made clear he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said, 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.”

If not Pentagon sources, then who were they? It’s well past time for the Post to identify them.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2014

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

Media Myth Alert marked its fifth anniversary in 2014 and reported periodically during the year on the appearance of prominent media-driven myths.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of 2014, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2014.

Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee (posted October 22, 2014): Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, died in October, setting off a wave of tributes that erred or exaggerated in describing the newspaper’s role in the Watergate scandal, which brought the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

The Los Angeles Times, for example, declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”

The online version of the New York Times obituary said Bradlee, who was 93, had “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”

The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”

Britain’s Economist magazine said the Post under Bradlee “toppled President Richard Nixon.”

And so it went.

But as I pointed out in discussing those erroneous characterizations, Bradlee, himself, had rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. He said in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.)

His comment “that Nixon got Nixon” was in keeping with the tendency of senior figures at the Post to reject the simplistic notion that the newspaper’s reporting — especially that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — uncovered the crimes that led to Nixon’s downfall.

As Woodward once declared:

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

Indeed, it is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes.

It likewise failed to reveal the existence of the White House tapes, which clearly revealed Nixon’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Moreover, the story that Woodward and Bernstein still say they are most proud of was in error on crucial details.

That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — wrongly — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates who were seeking to run against Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda dismissed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome at best “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important in bringing about Nixon’s resignation were the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Maddow wrongly asserts that Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics (posted June 4, 2014): In commentary on her MSNBC program in early June, Rachel Maddow wrongly declared that the Pentagon had “made up” the bogus account of Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Maddow offered no sourcing for her claim about the Pentagon and Lynch, who was an Army supply clerk thrust into international fame on April 3, 2003, in an electrifying, and exclusive, front-page story in the Washington Post.

Private Lynch

Private Lynch: Botched WaPo story made her famous

The Post report cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” and said that Lynch, a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

Lynch in fact had not fired a shot. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post had reported. She suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it fled the attack. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized by the Iraqis but rescued by U.S. special forces on April 1, 2003.

Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who wrote the hero-warrior story about Lynch — which was wrong in its most crucial details — made clear that the Pentagon had not been the newspaper’s source.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and flatly declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb, who then covered the Pentagon for the Post and who now is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, also told NPR that he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

He also said: “I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none.”

But none of that vital context was mentioned by Maddow in her commentary on June 3.

“If the heroics that the Pentagon made up about her didn’t really happen, and they didn’t, maybe the U.S. special forces who rescued her, maybe they shouldn’t have bothered,” Maddow said about Lynch. (Maddow’s commentary came amid the controversy stirred by the release of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army sergeant who apparently had walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The administration of President Barack Obama released five senior Taliban figures to gain Bergdahl’s freedom.)

When Maddow was called out for her erroneous claim about the Pentagon, she dodged a correction by cherry-picking  — by referring to an obscure report in the Military Times on April 3, 2003, in which a U.S. military spokesman, Frank Thorp, was quoted as saying that Lynch “waged quite a battle prior to her capture.

“We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,” Thorp was quoted as saying.

Maddow (NBC News)

Maddow (NBC News)

Crowed Maddow: “That information straight from a military public affairs official was not true. It was made up. But it landed in press reports anyway.”

What Maddow neglected to mention was that Thorp was recapping for the Military Times what the Washington Post had already placed in the public domain.

Thorp, then a Navy captain, was assigned to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. He was following, not fabricating: He was, unwisely, restating elements of the Post’s sensational story about Lynch’s purported heroics, which Loeb and co-author Susan Schmidt had prepared in Washington.

I noted in discussing Maddow’s cherry-picking that it is impossible to address the hero-warrior tale about Lynch without considering the Post’s central role in publicizing the bogus narrative, which was picked up by news organizations around the world.

But Maddow ignored the agenda-setting character of the Post’s reporting about Lynch: It didn’t fit her narrative.

Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo (posted May 29, 2014): There’s little doubt that the “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 was among the most memorable and disturbing images of the Vietnam War.

The photograph showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press and formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since, it also has become an artifact of exaggeration, as is evident in a tendency to ascribe powerful effects to the photograph, effects that it never had.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

In May, for example, the Guardian newspaper in London exaggerated the effects of the “napalm girl” image, asserting in an exhibit review that it had “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.”

In fact, “napalm girl” did neither.

U.S. public opinion had turned against the war in Vietnam well before June 1972. For example, nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

So Ut’s photo hardly can be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam; no single image “expedited” its end. The war’s confusing aims and uncertain policy objectives, its duration, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive to its outcome.

Seeking context for Obama’s war, finding media myth (posted September 24, 2014): It is a hoary myth myth that Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968, claiming to have in  mind a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

Had that been the case, had Nixon run for president saying he had “secret plan,” the country’s leading newspapers surely would have called attention to such a claim.

But they didn’t, as a search of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers makes clear. (The newspapers included the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, and Chicago Tribune.) Searching for “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles from January 1967 to January 1969 that quoted Nixon as touting or promising or describing a “secret plan” for Vietnam.

Still, the old chestnut still circulates, usually invoked as supposed evidence of Nixon’s guile, shiftiness, and venality.

Secret plan? Who me?

Secret plan? Who me?

In September, for example, a columnist for the Washington Examiner summoned the myth in seeking historical context to discuss President Barack Obama’s air war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

“Obama wasn’t the first president to promise peace and deliver war,” the columnist, Timothy P. Carney, wrote. “Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on keeping America out of the Great War. Nixon promised a secret plan to exit Vietnam quickly.”

As I noted at the time, “Missing from Carney’s discussion were details about when Nixon made such a promise, and what the ‘secret plan’  entailed. Those elements are missing because Nixon never promised a ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam.”

The derivation of the hoary myth can be traced to the presidential primary election campaign of 1968 and a speech in New Hampshire. There, in early March 1968, Nixon pledged that “new leadership” in Washington — a Nixon administration, in other words — would “end the war” in Vietnam.

In reporting on the speech, the wire service United Press International said Nixon “did not spell out how” he would “end the war.” Nixon may have been vague in those remarks about Vietnam. But he made no claim about a “secret plan.”

And he was asked about having a secret plan, according to an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times. Nixon replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

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

No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War (posted June 20, 2014): No media myth is hoarier than the notion that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Warmonger?

Hearst: Warmongering publisher?

The claim is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the myth was offered up as fact in a commentary in Politico Magazine in June.

The commentary pointedly criticized the scholar Robert Kagan for having “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in a 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

But in characterizing the war as “the product” of Hearst’s yellow press, Politico erred.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I noted, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

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

In a failed attempt to put down the uprising, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could neither support nor offer supplies to the Cuban rebels.

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

The humanitarian nightmare in Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press, including but by no means limited to the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

The yellow press reported on — but certainly did not create — the terrible effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898. It was not the content of the yellow press — and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it — that pushed America into conflict with Spain.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2014:

Christmas Eve 100 years ago: NY Sun catches up with Virginia O’Hanlon of ‘Yes, Virginia,’ fame

In 1897, Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes on December 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

NYSun_21Sept1897One-hundred years ago, a reporter for the old New York Sun caught up with Virginia O’Hanlon who, as an 8-year-old in 1897, had written the letter to the newspaper that inspired American journalism’s most memorable editorial, a paen to childhood and the Christmas spirit titled “Is There A Santa Claus?

The editorial’s most famous lines sought to reassure young Virginia, saying:

“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.”

NYSun_25Dec19140000

Virginia and daughter (From New York Sun, December 25, 1914)

Seventeen years later, on Christmas Eve 1914, Virginia O’Hanlon spoke about the editorial and recalled it fondly.

“I think that I have never been so happy in my life as when the Sun told me that there was a Santa Claus and that he would live forever,” she told the newspaper’s reporter. “I was eight years old then, just at the age when doubts creep in and when most children get their first touch of cynicism.”

She also recalled having told her father in 1897: “‘I am going to write to the Sun and ask it to tell me the truth, the honest to goodness truth, about Santa Claus. If the Sun says there isn’t any I’ll believe it; if it tells me Santa Claus is real I’ll make those girls at school sorry they ever teased me” by telling her Santa did not exist.

The interview was conducted at the home of Virginia’s parents at 121 West 95th Street in New York City, a few doors from where she had written to the Sun in 1897, saying: “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

At the time of the interview, Virginia was a married woman, 25-years-old. She was wed at her parents’ home in June 1913 to a jeweler named Edwin Malcolm Douglas. They were the parents of Laura Virginia Douglas, who on Christmas Eve was 9-months-old.

The marriage to Douglas was not to last; he eventually left her. And the Sun’s writeup of the interview 100 years ago hinted at strains in the union.

Virginia’s husband was absent that Christmas Eve. His business, the Sun said “takes him away from New York frequently and keeps him away from the city for long periods and the [Douglas] home in Orange, N.J., would be too lonesome for the wife and child.” So Virginia and the baby decamped to her parents’ place.

Douglas “will be home to-night or early in the morning” Christmas Day, Virginia told the Sun’s reporter, “and we will have a lovely Christmas.”

She spoke at some length during the interview about the Sun’s editorial, which was written by Francis P. Church and published September 21, 1897. The newspaper’s reply surprised and elated her, and her parents, Virginia said.

“It used to make me as proud as a peacock,” she said, “to go along in the street in the neighborhood and hear somebody say, ‘Oh, look. There’s Virginia O’Hanlon. Did you see that editorial the New York Sun had about her?’ And father and mother were even prouder than I, I think. They still show the editorial to callers and just talk people’s arms off about it.”

The day the editorial appeared, her father, Dr. Philip F. O’Hanlon, “hustled out and came back loaded down with [copies of the newspaper] until he looked like a pack mule,” Virginia said. “He scattered them all over town, I think, he was so proud.”

The editorial “was a wonderful thing in my life,” she said “and I mean it to be a wonderful thing in my baby’s. As soon as she masters her ABC’s it will be the first thing she will read. I’ll help her over the big words and hard spots, but I want her to get the beautiful spirit of it as quickly as she can.”

The writeup of the interview, published in the Sun on Christmas Day 1914, noted that the newspaper had “never quite lost sight of Virginia. … [I]t is impossible to forget the sort of little girl who wrote so sincerely and trustfully as Virginia did. The Sun knew when she left school, knew when she was married, knew when Laura Virginia opened her blue eyes, and remembered yesterday that Laura Virginia was on the eve of her first Christmas.”

I discussed the back story to the famous editorial in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms. My writeup three years ago about the Sun’s interview with Virginia O’Hanlon is accessible here.

WJC

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In remarkable reunion, descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon gather at Newseum events

In Anniversaries, New York Sun, Newspapers, Quotes, Year studies on November 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm

In what likely was an unprecedented public gathering, programs yesterday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., brought together several descendants of Virginia O’Hanlon, who as an 8-year-old in 1897 wrote a letter to the old New York Sun that inspired American journalism’s best-known and most-reprinted editorial.

Is There_NYSunThe remarkable reunion included Virginia’s only grandson, two granddaughters, two great-grandsons, and a great-great granddaughter, who is 8-years-old. Her name is Mehren O’Hanlon Blair, and she recited Virginia’s letter at the central, holiday-themed event of what the Newseum called “Yes, Virginia, Family Day.”

Mehren was followed by one of the great-grandsons, Nick Hromalik, who read the famous editorial, which appeared in the Sun as a reply to Virginia’s letter that implored: “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Both the letter and editorial were published on September 21, 1897, beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?” The editorial’s most familiar and most-quoted passage is: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

At a panel program that preceded the readings, Hromalik and Jim Temple, who is Virginia’s grandson, spoke about the editorial’s  significance and described how it has left lasting impressions on their families. (I moderated the panel discussion; in the audience were two of Temple’s sisters — granddaughters of Virginia O’Hanlon — as well as another great-grandson.)

Temple recalled how Virginia gladly accepted invitations to speak about the editorial, and would take no money to do so. He said he has followed that practice, as have other descendants of Virginia, who died in upstate New York in 1971 at 81-years-old.

Temple also said he remembered his grandmother was a gifted and imaginative storyteller. She also was an accomplished woman, earning advanced degrees and working more than 40 years as a teacher or principal in the New York school system. Virginia also was essentially a single mother; her husband left her when her only child — Temple’s mother — was just an infant.

Virginia’s letter to the Sun and the newspaper’s reply — written by Francis P. Church, who died in 1906 — have exerted an appeal across generations that is as astounding as it is undying. In my book about 1897, The Year That Defined American Journalism, I characterized the editorial as “a lyrical and timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit.”

It is, moreover, a cheering and reaffirming commentary, one without villains or sinister elements. The editorial also is a searching intellectual discussion that nonetheless is largely understandable to 8-year-olds, as Temple pointed out. (It also has been a way for generations of parents to address 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 Santa’s existence.)

Temple politely took issue with television depictions of the story of Virginia’s letter to the Sun. He said the representations were not entirely accurate .

He may have been too polite.

Temple_Hromalik

Nick Hromalik, left, and Jim Temple (Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie )

The most recent such depiction, an animated TV program released in 2009 and shown on CBS during every holiday season since then, succeeds in distorting all major elements of the back story of the editorial. Notably, Virginia is depicted as a waddling, round-headed girl obsessed about the existence of Santa Claus. It portrays Church as scowling, loud, and unrelievedly disagreeable.

Neither portrayal, as I have pointed out, is very convincing. Neither is very accurate.

WJC

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Appealing across generations of students: The Verne Edwards Mystique

In Journalism education, Newspapers on November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

The following is an expansion of remarks I offered yesterday, at a memorial service in Delaware, Ohio, for Verne E. Edwards, my undergraduate journalism professor and mentor who died this month at 90-years-old. I dedicated my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, to Edwards, who for 33 years taught journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University.

VerneEdwards

Verne Edwards, mid-1970s

How was it that Verne Edwards commanded such respect, such reverence, across generations of students?

He was a professor known for rigorous expectations — and sometimes-stern appraisals. I remember writing a headline for the student newspaper, the Transcript, that referred to Mount Union College (now University of Mount Union) as “Mount Vernon.”

In his weekly markup of the Transcript, Verne circled the errant headline in red pencil and identified it as the worst he had ever seen.

Verne was exacting, and could be quirky; he sometimes addressed his classes in a sidelong manner, not making much eye contact. But he was tough, and honest, and fair. And his students tended to feel terrible when they believed they had let him down. As in mistaking Mount Union for Mount Vernon.

The question of Verne Edwards’ appeal across generations has personal dimension and relevance: I have taught at American University for 17 years and know few faculty who command the kind of respect, indeed the reverence, that Verne so clearly won from generations of students. I have puzzled about the qualities and attributes that gained for Verne Edwards such esteem.

It is a puzzle; I call it the Verne Edwards Mystique, and I cannot claim to have fathomed all its sources.

The Verne Edwards Mystique surely sprang, in measure, from the authority borne of high standards and relevant experience. Verne was a print journalist. At one time or another, he wrote editorials or edited copy at such newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Toledo Blade. He wrote the textbook, too — Journalism in a Free Society, which he required in his classes for years.

It was little exaggeration that Ohio Wesleyan’s journalism program was known, to some of us, as “Vernalism.”

The Verne Edwards Mystique was rooted, too, in a deep and abiding interest in students, and a dedication to staying in touch. Verne would keep up on the accomplishments of his former students, and would welcome them back to campus.

Year after year, for many years, Verne prepared an annual alumni newsletter that he filled with details and updates about his students from across the generations. His newsletter was a highlight of the end-of-year holidays. And it created bonds among his former students, even for those who had never met one another.

What may best explain the Verne Edwards Mystique, though, is modesty, a decided modesty.

Verne was no self-promoter. He could have been, surely, given the awards and the recognition he received during his career. But his ego was kept under wraps and under control; his was a modesty that’s rather rare in the academy.

Students sensed that, too. Verne, they knew, was the real deal. And he didn’t flaunt it.

WJC

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