W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Media-driven myths’

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

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

Katrina, 10 years ago

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

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

A quintessential great moment is was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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‘Forbes’ essay invokes zombie-like Hearst ‘quote’: It never dies

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 22, 2015 at 12:14 pm

The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst that he would “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

It is, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Exhibit A in support of the dubious notion that Hearst  brought on the Spanish-American War.

The vow supposedly was made in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Remington stayed just six days in January 1897 before returning to New York, where his sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s New York Journal.

'Maine' destroyed

‘Journal’ reports ‘Maine’ destruction

The mythical tale about the Hearstian vow and the war with Spain was offered up anew yesterday, in an essay posted at Forbes.com. It declared:

“Artist Frederick [sic] Remington was working for Hearst and the Journal was filled with his sketches of alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace, especially women and children. When events in Cuba seemed to have run their course and the Spanish had regained control Remington wrote to Hearst and asked if it was time to come home, Hearst replied, ‘Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.’ And when the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, he did just that with a stream of fictional stories of sabotage and anti-Americanism. That the explosion was actually caused by the accidental ignition of coal dust was, as far as Hearst was concerned, irrelevant. He had his war.”

There’s a lot of myth and misunderstanding to unpack there.

For starters, the “alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace” were quite real. The abuses stemmed from Spain’s policy of “reconcentration,” in which Cuban non-combattants were herded into garrison towns, to deprive the rebels of their support. Reconcentration led to acute hardships, privation, and the deaths of untold thousands of Cubans.

A leading historian of the Spanish-American War period, Ivan Musicant, has  written that reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Despite the Forbes claim, Spain never “regained control” of Cuba; at best, the rebellion had settled into an uneasy stalemate by the end of 1897.

The battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, 13 months after Remington’s brief visit to Cuba. Cause of the explosion that killed 266 U.S. sailors and officers remains disputed. But in March 1898, a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine most likely had been destroyed by an underwater mine. The Inquiry could not determine who set the device, however.

About a month after the Court of Inquiry issued its report, the United States and Spain went to war over Cuba.

In the run-up to war, the Journal didn’t distinguish itself with its overheated reporting about the crisis. But the newspaper’s content cannot be said to have brought on the conflict.

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, claims that Hearst fomented the war invariably are offered without persuasive explanation as to how the often-exaggerated content of his newspapers was transformed into U.S. policy, how newspaper reports were decisive in the decision-making the led the United States to declare war in April 1898.

The inescapable answer: Newspaper content was not decisive.

If Hearst and his newspapers had pushed the country into war, then researchers surely should be able to locate evidence of such influence in the personal papers and reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

But nothing of the like can be found in the private letters, diary entries, and diplomatic correspondence of top members of the administration of President William McKinley.

Those papers contain almost no evidence that the content of Hearst’s newspapers “penetrated the thinking of key White House officials, let alone influenced the Cuban policy of the McKinley administration,” I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Which brings us back to the zombie-like vow, which, by the way, the Forbes essay mangles.

Hearst purportedly told Remington, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” — not “Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.”

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman the pompous

The original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a vain, cigar-chomping journalist inclined to self-promotion, hyperbole, and pomposity.

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

What’s more, Creelman – who was in Spain at the time Remington was in Cuba in 1897 – recounted the anecdote not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.

Over the decades, though, the quote has morphed into censure of Hearst and his supposedly war-mongering newspapers.

The quote lives on despite the absence of any supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up, and Hearst denied having sent such a message.

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

In addition, the timing of Remington’s assignment further undercuts the “furnish the war” tale: The timing poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, in that it would have been absurd for Hearst to pledge to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

About that Hearst quote on public’s fondness for entertainment

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 20, 2015 at 6:45 am

“It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information.”

Hearst before the war

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So declared New York Journal in a lengthy editorial (see below) published November 8, 1896, at the first anniversary of William Randolph Hearst’s taking over the once-moribund daily.

During that period, the editorial claimed, the Journal made enormous circulation gains — from 77,230 to 417,821, daily, and from 54,308 to 351,751, Sunday.

“What has been done in one year,” the Journal declared, “is a promise of what will be done in the next.”

The first-anniversary editorial and its self-congratulatory tone have long been forgotten. But its claim that the public is “more fond of entertainment than it is of information” has lived on as evidence of Hearst’s supposed inclination to treat his newspapers as platforms of frivolity and exaggeration.

Such characterizations are to be found in more than a few books that address or refer to Hearstian journalism.

For example, Gerald Baldasty presented the fragment “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” as a stand-alone sentence in E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers. So, too, did Louis Pizzitola in Hearst Over Hollywood. Donald A. Ritchie included the excerpt in American Journalists: Getting the Story, as did both George Sullivan in Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars and Samantha Barbas in her biography about Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.18.20 AM

The first-anniversary editorial

Michael Schudson included the full quotation in Discovering the News, and cited as his source W.A. Swanberg, who excerpted  a few passages from the Journal’s first-anniversary editorial in Citizen Hearst, a notably dreadful biography.

The first-anniversary editorial, which carried the headline “One Year’s Progress,” was unsigned; so it may not have been Hearst’s writing at all (but in that case, he surely would have approved its content before publication).

What’s more important is that the editorial was no endorsement of news-as-entertainment, no embrace of the primacy of superficial and trivial content. To describe it as such is to misrepresent and err: Hearst, or whoever wrote the editorial, was not extolling frivolity in his newspapers.

Far from it.

The editorial staked a claim to seriousness of purpose. It did not diminish the importance of news and newsgathering but rather embraced those aims, as these excerpts make clear (my additional commentary is italicized):

  • “The Journal has made it its business to reach out for news wherever it is to be had, considering neither precedent, difficulty, nor cost.” Indeed, a little-recognized hallmark of Hearst’s journalism of the mid- and late-1890s was his willingness to devote substantial sums to cover far-flung news events.
  • “When the ordinary news channels are blocked or inadequate, the Journal dispatches it own correspondents to the points, however distant, where the news is to be obtained, and even presses monarchs and statesmen into its service. And these dignitaries are often gracefully obliging.” The “dignitaries” sometimes would reply with a few sentences to the Journal’s cabled requests for comment about political or military developments abroad.
  • “The Cuban War [the rebellion that began in 1895 and gave rise to the Spanish-American War of 1898] … engaged the lively interest of the people of the United States. So the Journal sent correspondents to the island, among them Mr. Murat Halstead [then a 66-year-old eminence grise among American journalists] and General Bradley Johnson [formerly a Confederate field officer]. This paper was the first to get a reporter through the lines to the [Cuban] insurgents and give their side a hearing.” In December 1896, the Journal recruited the writer Richard Harding Davis and the artist Frederic Remington  to go to Cuba and meet up with the insurgents. The intended rendezvous never happened, but the assignment did give rise to the apocryphal tale of Hearst’s vowing to Remington that he would “furnish the war” with Spain.

The editorial’s most-quoted passage — that “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” — was preceded by a prideful recitation of the Journal’s enterprise during the previous 12 months. That portion of the editorial read:

“At the Czar’s coronation [in May 1896] the Journal was specially represented in Moscow by Mr. Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Julian Ralph [who reported from abroad for many years] is our resident correspondent in London. Edgar Saltus, Stephen Crane, Julian Hawthorne, Edward W. Townsend and other authors of fame act as reporters or contributors when the need arises. No other journal in the United States includes in its staff a tenth of the number of writers of reputation and talent. It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information. In short, during the past year we have been publishing a first-rate, all-round newspaper that has given a history of the world’s most important events each day ….”

So the context for the popular passage about the public’s fondness for entertainment is in fact an unambiguous statement about the importance of reporting the news with skill and talent.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, the editorial writer may have invoked “entertainment” not in the word’s light-hearted sense but to suggest the pleasure readers derived from the works of some of the leading authors of the late 19th century. Such an interpretation certainly offers itself, given the editorial’s context and content.

But why is any of this of importance now?

After all, the quotation isn’t as well-known, or invoked as often, as “furnish the war.” But it still resonates and still circulates — as suggested by the sneering essay published a month ago by Salon.

The essay was, as I noted then, “a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.” It closed with a slightly altered version of the passage from the Journal’s editorial:

“Said William Randolph Hearst: ‘The public is even more fond of entertainment than information.’ Boy, was he right.”

So the quotation has currency, serving as inaccurate shorthand for the superficial character of Hearst’s journalism. But the Journal of the mid- and late-1890s wasn’t that.

It was flamboyant and indulged heartily in self-promotion. It inspired “yellow journalism,” a sneer coined in 1897 by an embittered rival editor in New York City.

But Hearst’s journalism also was aggressive, searching, and fairly well-funded. As Hearst’s most even-handed biographer, David Nasaw, wrote in his 2000 work, The Chief:

““Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper [was] outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Nasaw was referring to the Journal of 1895-96.

In months that followed, the newspaper became even more assertive and exceptional as it staked out and pursued an activist model of participatory journalism. The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigmsthe “journalism of action” emphasized agency and engagement and sought to expand the norms of newsgathering.

The Journal argued that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence,” as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

The “journalism of action” did not valorize a light-hearted approach to the news. Rather, the Journal said, the “journalism of action” represented “the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

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

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

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

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon’s tapes got Nixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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No, ‘Salon’ — Hearst’s yellow journalism didn’t cause war with Spain

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

In a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Salon indulges in the hoary media myth that Hearst’s “yellow journalism” provoked war with Spain in 1898.

Salon’s essay was posted today beneath the headline: “Donald Trump’s third-rate ego monument: The billionaire wanna-be president who makes Trump look like a chump.”

Wasn't Heast's war

Wasn’t Heast’s war

As the headline suggests, the essay is no subtle or thoughtful treatment of Hearst. It reflects none of the sophistication and insight of Hearst’s most recent and skilled biographers, David Nasaw (who wrote The Chief in 2000) and Kenneth Whyte (author of The Uncrowned King in 2008).

Significantly, the Salon essay errs in claiming that Hearst’s flamboyant journalism of the late 19th century brought on the Spanish-American War, declaring:

“Headline grabbing was, literally, Hearst’s business. His combustible personality had already been responsible for the ‘yellow journalism’ that got the U.S. into war in Cuba in 1898. Trump hasn’t done that yet.”

Before unpacking that mythical claim, let’s briefly consider the defining features of Hearst’s journalism of the late 1890s — and how and why it came to be called “yellow journalism.”

Hearst, who was 32 when he came to New York City from San Francisco in 1895 and acquired a moribund daily, the Journal, infused his journalism with self-promotion, as did many fin-de-siecle American newspapers.

What set Hearst apart from his many competitors in New York was a willingness to spend generously in news-gathering and an inclination to go bold in news-presentation: His Journal was typographically more engaging and experimental than its staid rival newspapers.

Jail-breaking journalism

Activist, and bold in presentation

Moreover, Hearstian journalism of the late 1890s was animated by activism — by a notion that newspapers had an obligation to do more than comment and criticize, but to inject themselves in the issues of the day and try to correct the wrongs in public life, to fill the voids created by government inaction or incompetence.

The “journalism of action,” it was called. And it borrowed from “government by journalism,” which William T. Stead advanced in Britain in the 1880s.

Hearst’s “journalism of action,” as I pointed out in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, was “a paradigm of agency and engagement that went beyond gathering and publishing the news.”

The most dramatic and celebrated manifestation of the “journalism of action” was the jailbreak in Havana in 1897 that freed a 19-year-old Cuban political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. A reporter for Hearst’s Journal organized the escape of Cisneros, who was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer to New York, where Hearst organized a rapturous reception for her in midtown Manhattan.

Hearst shook up New York City journalism, and his foes chafed at his aggressive brand of journalism. Some of them openly hoped that the young publisher would spend himself into bankruptcy. In early 1897, one of the rivals came up with “yellow journalism” as a jeering rejection of what Hearst was then calling “the new journalism.” The sneer “yellow journalism” stuck; even Hearst’s Journal came to embrace the term.

But by no means did “yellow journalism” cause, foment, or otherwise bring about the war in 1898, a brief conflict that confirmed America as a global power.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press “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” Hearst’s Journal.

Assertions that the yellow press caused the war, I wrote, “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, where an islandwide rebellion had flared in early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the armed challenge to Spanish rule, Madrid sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and its generals imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” by which thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — were herded into garrison towns so they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

The “reconcentration” policy gave rise to much suffering and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation, creating a humanitarian disaster on Cuba that “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” as I wrote in Yellow Journalism.

The desperate conditions on Cuba in 1897 and early 1898 were frequent topics of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, Hearst’s Journal. His newspaper reported on “reconcentration” but in no way created the policy’s devastating effects.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by the “reconcentration” policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, were pivotal in the American decision to go to war over Cuba in 1898; the content of the yellow press was irrelevant.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism:

“If the yellow press did foment the war, researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time. But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the [William] McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor. It was regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain.”

A few years after the war, the Journal pointedly scoffed at claims that it fomented the war in a cynical scheme to build circulation and boost profits. “Would you like to know what effect the war had on the money-making feature of this particular newspaper? The wholesale price of paper was greatly increased. Advertising diminished, expenses increased enormously,” the Journal noted in 1902, adding that its expenses related to covering the conflict exceeded $750,000 — the equivalent these days of more than $20 million.

WJC

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‘SF Examiner’ marks 150th anniversary with dose of media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 11, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The San Francisco Examiner marked its 150th anniversary today with a dash of media myth about its most famous owner, William Randolph Hearst, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Media baron Hearst

Hearst: Started with the Examiner

The newspaper, which has survived near-death encounters in its turbulent past, asserted the following in an online overview of its history:

“Led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, newspapers were largely responsible for creating the Spanish-American War through the birth of yellow journalism.”

But how that worked, how the newspapers created or fomented that war, was left unsaid, as was the nature of the contribution of “yellow journalism.”

For that matter, “yellow journalism” was left undefined.

But the short answer is that newspapers — and yellow journalism — were not “responsible,” largely or otherwise, for the war in which the United States crushed Spanish military forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, an outcome that signaled America’s emergence as a global power.

As I discussed in my 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the New York newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer — the leading exemplars of the yellow press — exerted very modest agenda-setting influence in the run-up to the war.SFExaminer loho_Twitter

I noted:

“There is little evidence that the press beyond New York City, especially in small-town and rural America, was influenced by the content of the yellow journals, including their demands for war after the destruction of the Maine,” an American warship that blew up while on a friendly visit to Havana in mid-February 1898.

The destruction of the Maine — in a harbor under Spanish control — was a trigger for the war.

But if newspapers had been responsible for the war, then researchers should be able to find unambiguous references to such influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

“But neither the diary entries of cabinet officers [in the administration of President William McKinley] nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all,” I wrote Yellow Journalism.

So what, then, were the proximate causes of war in 1898?

Fundamentally, the war was the consequence of a three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cuban insurgents, who in 1895 had launched a rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, would accept nothing short of independence from Madrid. Spain, for domestic and economic reasons, was adamant not to grant Cuban independence — and sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island in an attempt to put down the rebellion. And the United States had become deeply frustrated with Spain’s inability to bring an end to a conflict on an island 90 miles from U.S. shores.

Not only did Spain send thousands of troops to Cuba, it sought to deprive the rebels of the aid and support of non-combattants by herding  women, children, and old men into reconcentration centers. The Cuban non-combattants suffered grievously; tens of thousands of them died from starvation and illness in the reconcentration centers.

By 1898, a humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba.

The diplomatic standoff, and the effects of Spain’s reconcentration policy, were the real reasons for the war.

Not Hearst. Not Pulitzer. Not “yellow journalism.”

As for “yellow journalism”: The term was coined in 1897 and it came to represent a flamboyant genre defined by these features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call frequent attention to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

It was, as I noted in Yellow Journalism, a genre that scarcely could be “called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

WJC

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Who chased Nixon from office? Not Woodward, Bernstein

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

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

It is a racket that allows officials to evade accountability.

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

Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

The ambitious Mark Felt

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

Woodward and Bernstein chased Nixon out of office?

Not quite.

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

As Woodward, himself, has said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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No, Politico: WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 27, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Politico yesterday posted an intriguing if flawed account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Intriguing because of such nuggets as J.Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Bradlee as “a colossal liar.” Hoover was the FBI’s long-serving director who died in 1972.

Flawed because the Politico writeup referred to Bradlee as “a man whose Washington Post brought down a president.”

Hardly: Bringing down Nixon wasn’t the Post’s doing.

Not even Bradlee, who died last October, embraced that notion. And most principals at the Post during Watergate rejected that superficial interpretation as well.

Notably, Bradlee pointed out in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

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

“Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon”: That’s a tidy rebuttal to the extravagant claims made about the Post and its Watergate reporting.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s corrupt presidency is a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

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

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal, modest at best. Hardly decisive.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, essentially said as much in 1997. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said then. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward concurred, if in earthier terms. He told an interviewer in 2006:

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

It is revealing to recall the major Watergate developments that the Post did not disclose.
It failed to disclose the White House cover up of crimes associated with the breakin.
It likewise failed to reveal the existence of the White House tapes. Those disclosures came in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.
Interestingly, Bradlee had an important part in the Post’s failing to disclose the existence of the tapes.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before Senate select committee made their existence known.

According to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and they missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.

WJC

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

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

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

NYT_BayofPigs_front

It made page one

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

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

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

Shipler invokes the suppression tale this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The government in April 1961,” Salisbury wrote, “did not … know that The Times was going to publish the Szulc story, although it was aware that The Times and other newsmen were probing in Miami. …. The action which The Times took [in editing Szulc’s report] was on its own responsibility,” the result of internal discussions and deliberations.

The editing was cautious but hardly unreasonable.

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

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

An entirely defensible editorial decision.

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

Those decisions were judicious, and certainly not unreasonable.

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

On the front page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That essentially was the plan to topple Castro.

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

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

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

WJC

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

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

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

Today brought another entry to that dubious lineup.

Keillor_WritersAlmanac

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

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

“In 1898,” Keillor smugly told listeners, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

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

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

Let’s revisit some of the many reasons.

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

Hearst

Hearst: Denial ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

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