W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2016

In 'Napalm girl', Bay of Pigs, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 28, 2016 at 6:56 am

Media Myth Alertscreen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm called attention in 2016 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases discussed in a new, expanded edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, which was published in October.

Here is a rundown of Media Myth Alert’s five top posts of the year, followed by references to other notable mythbusting writeups of 2016.

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures (posted August 22): The new edition of Getting It Wrong includes three new chapters — one of which debunks the myths associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph, which showed a cluster of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village northwest of Saigon.

Most prominent among the myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. forces — a claim the Los Angeles Times repeated in a profile in August about Nick Ut of the Associated Press, who took the photograph on June 8, 1972. The profile described how “Ut stood on a road in a village just outside of Saigon when he spotted the girl — naked, scorched by American napalm and screaming as she ran.”

Shortly after Media Myth Alert called attention to the erroneous reference to “American napalm,” the Times quietly removed the modifier “American” — but without appending a correction.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, the myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years.

The notion of American responsibility for the napalm attack took hold in the months afterward, propelled by George McGovern, the hapless Democratic candidate for president in 1972. McGovern referred to the image during his campaign, saying the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America.”

That metaphoric claim was “plainly overstated,” I write, adding:Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

“The napalm was dropped on civilians ‘not in the name of America’ but in an errant attempt by South Vietnamese forces to roust North Vietnamese troops from bunkers dug at the outskirts of the village. That is quite clear from contemporaneous news reports.”

The Los Angeles Times placed the “napalm girl” photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see nearby); the caption made clear that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”

So why does it matter to debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl”?

The reasons are several.

“Excising the myths … allows the image to be regarded and assessed more fairly, on its own terms,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Debunking the myths of ‘Napalm Girl’ does nothing to diminish the photograph’s exceptionality. But removing the barnacles of myth effectively frees the photograph from association with feats and effects that are quite implausible.” That’s a reference to other myths of the “Napalm Girl,” that the image was so powerful that it swung public opinion against the war and hastened an end to the conflict.

But like the notion of American culpability in the errant attack, those claims are distortions and untrue.

NYTimes’ Castro obit gets it wrong about NYTimes’ Bay of Pigs coverage (posted November 26): Fidel Castro died in late November and the New York Times in a lengthy obituary called the brutal Cuban dictator “a towering international figure.” The Times obituary also invoked a persistent media myth about its own coverage of the run-up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The obituary said that the Times, “at the request of the Kennedy administration, withheld some” details of the invasion plans, “including information that an attack was imminent.”

But as I describe in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the administration of President John F. Kennedy “asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the impending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.”

What I call the “New York Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth” centers around the editing of a single article by Tad Szulc, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Times. Eleven days before the invasion, Szulc reported from Miami that an assault, organized by the CIA, was imminent.

Editors at the Times removed references to imminence and to the CIA.

“Imminent,” they reasoned, was more prediction than fact.

And the then-managing editor, Turner Catledge, later wrote that he “was hesitant to specify the CIA when we might not be able to document the charge.” So references to CIA were replaced with the more nebulous term “U.S. officials.”

Both decisions were certainly justifiable. And Szulc’s story appeared April 7, 1961, above-the-fold on the Times front page (see image nearby).

NYT_BayofPigs_frontAs the veteran Timesman Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, his insider’s account of the Times:

“The government in April 1961 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 that are recognizable to anyone familiar with the give-and-take of newsroom decision-making.

What’s rarely recognized or considered in asserting the suppression myth is that the Times’ reporting about the runup to the invasion was hardly confined to Szulc’s article.

Indeed, the Times and other news outlets “kept expanding the realm of what was publicly known about a coming assault against Castro,” I write, noting that the newspaper “continued to cover and comment on invasion preparations until the Cuban exiles hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs” on April 17, 1961.

Suppressed the coverage was not.

Smug MSNBC guest invokes Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ on Vietnam (posted May 3): Donald Trump’s shaky grasp of foreign policy invited his foes to hammer away at his views — and one of them, left-wing activist Phyllis Bennis, turned to a tenacious media myth to bash the Republican candidate.

Bennis did so in late April, in an appearance on the MSNBC program, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.MSNBC logo

Trump during his campaign vowed to eradicate ISIS, the radical Islamic State, but wasn’t specific about how that would be accomplished.

Bennis, showing unconcealed smugness, declared on the MSNBC show that Trump’s reference to ISIS “was very reminiscent of Nixon’s call when he was running for president [in 1968] and said, ‘I have a secret plan to end the war.’ The secret plan of course turned out to be escalation.”

In fact, the “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was a campaign pledge Nixon never made.

He didn’t campaign for the presidency by espousing or touting or proclaiming a “secret plan” on Vietnam.

That much is clear from the search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. The search terms “Nixon” and “secret plan” returned no articles during the period from January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included all of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath.)

Surely, if Nixon had campaigned on a “secret plan” in 1968, as Bennis so snootily claimed, the country’s leading newspapers would have publicized it.

Nixon did publicly confront the notion he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, he was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

Nixon also said on that occasion:

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

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But such a claim was not a feature of his campaign.

No, ‘Politico’ — Hearst didn’t vow to ‘furnish the war’ (posted December 18): The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Confirmation of its zombie-like character was in effect offered by Politico in December, in an essay about the “long and brutal history of fake news.” Politico cited, as if it were true, the fake tale of Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow.

As I wrote in a Media Myth Alert post about Politico‘s use of the mythical quote:

Hearst’s vow, supposedly contained in an exchanged of telegrams with the artist Frederick Remington, is one of the most tenacious of all media myths, those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal. They can be thought of as prominent cases of ‘fake news‘ that have masqueraded as fact for years.”

The tale, I write in Getting It Wrong, “lives on despite a nearly complete absence of supporting documentation.

“It lives on even though telegrams supposedly exchanged by Remington and Hearst have never turned up. It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.”

And it lives on despite what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.” That is, it would have been illogical for Hearst to have sent a message vowing to “furnish the war” because war — Cuba’s rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, begun in 1895 — was the very reason Hearst assigned Remington to Cuba at the end of 1896.

Debunking the Hearstian vow is the subject of Chapter One in Getting It Wrong; the chapter is accessible here.

NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies (posted January 3): Watergate’s mythical dominant narrative has it that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the crimes that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

The dominant narrative (the heroic-journalist trope, I call it) emerged long ago, and Hollywood — specifically, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — is an important reason why.

The movie, All the President’s Men, was released to critical acclaim 40 years ago and unabashedly promotes the heroic-journalist interpretation, that Woodward and Bernstein were central to unraveling Watergate and bringing down Nixon.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured” — as was suggested by a New York Times in an article in early January.

The article, which appeared beneath the headline “Journalism Catches Hollywood’s Eye,” embraced the heroic-journalist myth in referring to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Their reporting had no such effect, however much All the President’s Men encouraged that simple notion.

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

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

It’s notable that principals at the Post declined over the years to embrace the mediacentric interpretation.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, for example:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The January article was not the first occasion in which the Times treated the heroic-journalist myth as if it were true.

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

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2016 :

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

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

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

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

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

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

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Following the money on 37th anniversary of Nixon’s fall

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on August 9, 2011 at 12:55 am

Nixon resigns, 1974

It’s somehow fitting on this, the 37th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation, to direct attention to the myth and hyperbole that embrace the best-known line of the Watergate scandal, the line that supposedly helped bring him down.

That line, of course, is “follow the money,” which purportedly was crucial advice given the Washington Post by a super-secret, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat.”

Follow the money” was said to have been so telling and effective that it’s still cited as exemplary guidance applicable in journalism, politics, and finance.

Just yesterday, for example, Barry Nolan, a journalist and contributor to Boston Magazine’sBoston Daily” blog, invoked the famous phrase, writing:

“Any time you really want to know why a vote happened the way it did, the single best piece of advice ever given came from ‘Deep Throat,’ the shadowy tipster in the Watergate scandal. ‘Follow the money,’ he told the Washington Post reporters.”

It may seem like stellar advice, but it’s guidance that the “Deep Throat” source offered only in the movies.

As I’ve discussed at Media Myth Alert, “follow the money” is Watergate’s most famous made-up line.

The phrase was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

“Follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, take down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Nor did “follow the money” appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation.

Nor did “Deep Throat” — who was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — utter the line in his periodic meetings with Woodward. (And Felt/”Deep Throat” didn’t meet Bernstein until 2008.)

Follow the money” was memorably intoned not by Mark Felt but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.

As I’ve noted, Holbrook turned in a marvelous performance as a tormented, conflicted, and stealthy “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such conviction and steely assurance, that it seemed for all the world to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice certainly neither would have unraveled Watergate nor led him to Nixon.

Nixon resigned 37 years ago today not because he misused campaign funds but because he sought to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

The simplified follow-the-money  interpretation of Watergate effectively deflects attention from the decisive forces that ultimately forced Nixon from office.

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

“Even then,” I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

Recent and related:

India high court order invokes phony Watergate line

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

Two Supreme Court judges in India last month turned to Watergate’s most famous made-up line in ordering an investigation into large sums of money believed stashed in banks abroad.

The judges in their order cited the made-up line as if it had been genuine advice from a high-level source to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post  during the newspaper’s investigation of the Watergate scandal.

The line is “follow the money” — and it had no role whatsoever in the Watergate scandal.

Follow the money” was never uttered by Woodward’s stealthy source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The line appears nowhere in the All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate reporting for the Post.

Nor did the passage appear in any Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post before June 1981 — nearly seven years after the scandal reached its denouement with President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 movie based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

Many people and many news outlets over the years have cited “follow the money” as if it were real, as if it had been advice to Woodward that really worked.

Just last week, for example, a column in London’s high-brow Financial Times newspaper described “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate. And a column posted at Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago also repeated “follow the money” as if it had been vital guidance to uncovering Watergate.

But finding its way into a high court order probably represents a first for “follow the money.”

As noted in a Bloomberg news service report yesterday, the two judges — B. Sudershan Reddy and S.S. Singh Nijjar — invoked “follow the money” at the outset of the order they released early last month.

Credulously, the judges wrote:

“‘Follow the money’ was the short and simple advice given by the secret informant, within the American Government, to Bob Woodward, the journalist from Washington Post, in aid of his investigations of the Watergate Hotel break in.”

So how is it that such errors are made? What explains the impressive reach and popularity of this appealing but contrived statement?

A partial explanation is that “follow the money” seems just too good, too delicious, not to be true. It’s in the class of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain: It’s a quotation that really ought to true.

And as I point out in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war.’ … Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy often are too perfect to be true.”

The popularity of “follow the money” goes beyond appealing pithiness and is rooted in the dramatic quality of All the President’s Men, the most-watched movie ever made about Watergate.

The “Deep Throat” character was played in All the President’s Men by the actor Hal Holbrook, who turned in a marvelous performance.

In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, the shadowy, raspy-voiced Holbrook told the Woodward character (played by Robert Redford):

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet insistence that it truly seemed to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal. And the popularity of the movie carried “follow the money” into the vernacular.

But such guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken the reporter only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than the improper use of campaign monies.

Nixon was toppled not by heroic journalists who followed a money trail, but by irrefutable evidence captured on audiotapes that he had ordered the cover up Watergate’s signal crime, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

WJC

Recent and related:

The Fin Times and the ‘mantra’ of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 28, 2011 at 7:33 am

The single phrase associated most often with Watergate surely is “follow the money” — guidance supposedly given to Washington Post reporters covering the scandal in the early 1970s.

“Follow the money” also is the best-known made-up line of Watergate.

The statement is only as real as images projected on the screen: “Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of the Watergate book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

But because it sounded so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the vernacular.

So it’s commonly believed that “follow the money” was guidance uttered by the  Post’s high-level secret source, who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The usually sober and usually well-reported Financial Times of London yesterday invoked “follow the money” as if it were genuine, stating in a column on financial matters:

“’Follow the money’ might have been the mantra for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the Watergate scandal. But ‘follow the debt’ would be a better way of summing up where investors should be looking for the next bubble.”

We’ll leave “follow the debt” to bubble-seeking investors.

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is the reference to “follow the money” as the “mantra” of Watergate.

No way was it Watergate’s “mantra.”

The line appeared in no Watergate-related news article or editorial in the Post until 1981 — nearly seven years after Watergate had reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Moreover, “follow the money” appears nowhere in Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. The book came out in June 1974, a couple of months before Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

So the phrase was no “mantra.”

What pressed “follow the money” into the vernacular was the marvelous performance of actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a conflicted, shadowy, even tormented “Deep Throat” character. In a memorable, late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character (played by Robert Redford):

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the “follow the money” line with such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

But had it really been offered to Woodward (“Deep Throat” never met Bernstein during Watergate), “follow the money” would have taken him only so far.

Watergate, after all, was much broader than the misuse of campaign funds.

What ultimately brought down Nixon was  his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

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

“Even then,” I write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

Heeding advice to “follow-the-money” scarcely would have enabled investigators to uncover the decisive evidence about Nixon’s misconduct.

WJC

Recent and related:

More media myths from CounterPunch

In Bay of Pigs, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 24, 2011 at 8:30 am

CounterPunch touts itself as “America’s best political newsletter.”

It’s building a reputation for indulging in media-driven myths, too.

Since mid-March, essays posted at CounterPunch have:

CounterPunch has indulged yet again in media myth, in a commentary in its weekend edition about Rupert Murdoch’s troubled media empire.

CounterPunch claimed the tough old media mogul has “surpassed William Randolph Hearst,” press baron of the 19th and early 20th centuries, “in practicing yellow journalism.”

The commentary invoked the hoary media myth about Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

According to CounterPunch, Hearst said: “Get me the photos and I’ll get you the war.”

That was, CounterPunch added, “Hearst’s 1898 dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

Provocative tale. But it’s pure media myth.

Hearst’s vow is almost surely apocryphal, for reasons I discuss in my myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

Among the reasons:  The telegram that supposedly contained Hearst’s vow — a cable sent to artist Frederic Remington, on assignment to Cuba — has never turned up.

More significantly, as I point out Getting It Wrong, the anecdote about Hearst’s purported vow suffers from “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency.”

That is, it would have been absurd and illogical for Hearst to have vowed to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

In addition, the Spanish colonial authorities who ruled Cuba closely controlled and censored incoming and outgoing telegraphic traffic: They surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary telegram, had it been sent.

But in fact, there was, as I write in Getting It Wrong, no chance that telegrams would have flowed freely between Remington in Cuba and Hearst in New York.

So “furnish the war” (or, “provide the war”) wasn’t at all Hearst’s “dictum to help start the Spanish-American War.”

That Hearst helped bring on the war with Spain is a media myth, too.

It’s a myth dismantled in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I pointed out that the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War.

“It 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.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1897, when Remington arrived in Havana on assignment for Hearst.

WJC

Recent and related:

An outbreak of ‘follow the money,’ that phony Watergate line

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

From Oregon to Canada to India, news outlets turned yesterday to Watergate’s most famous made-up phrase, treating the line as if it were genuine.

Felt: Not his line

The line is “follow the money,” which supposedly was vital guidance that a secret source code-named “Deep Throat” gave to the Washington Post during its Watergate investigation in 1972-74.

The passage was offered up credulously by these news outlets yesterday:

  • The Huffington Post, in (yet another) commentary about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The commentary declared: “During the Washington Post‘s investigative reporting of President [Richard] Nixon’s attempts to cover up the Watergate burglary, it’s [sic] source, ‘Deep Throat’ gave the reporters the best advice. ‘Deep Throat’ said that the truth would be discovered if they ‘follow the money.’ They did and it ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
  • The Register-Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon, in a column about the phone-hacking scandal: “As Deep Throat advised reporters unraveling a different national scandal, ‘Follow the money.’”
  • The Business News Network in Canada, in a blog post about interest rates in that country: “I’ll take the advice of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent most famously known as Deep Throat, the key source in Bob Woodward’s Watergate investigation: follow the money.”
  • The Hindu newspaper in India, in a commentary about suspected banking improprieties: “‘Follow the money’ was the advice given by the secret informant within the government to Bob Woodward of Washington Post at the beginning of the Watergate scandal.”

As those cases suggest, “follow the money” is impressively versatile. Its popularity seems limitless.

But however appealing and catchy, “follow the money” is contrived.

The phrase was never uttered by the “Deep Throat” source, who met periodically with Woodward as Watergate unfolded. (“Deep Throat” was self-identified in 2005 as W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI. Felt never spoke during Watergate with Woodward’s reporting partner, Carl Bernstein.)

According to a database of Washington Post content, the phrase “follow the money” appeared in no news article or editorial about Watergate before 1981.

“Follow the money” doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, which came out in 1974.

The derivation of the passage lies in a scene in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book. The movie was released to much fanfare in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon resigned the presidency for his guilty role in obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.

What pressed “follow the money” into the popular consciousness was an outstanding performance turned in by actor Hal Holbrook in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

Holbrook played a twitchy, conflicted, shadowy “Deep Throat.” In a late-night scene in a darkened parking garage, Holbrook told the Woodward character, played by Robert Redford:

“I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. I’ll keep you in the right direction, if I can, but that’s all.

“Just follow the money.”

Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal.

But the guidance, had it really been offered to Woodward, would have taken him only so far. Watergate, after all, was much broader than a case of improper use of campaign monies.

In the end, Nixon was toppled by his efforts to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As a simplistic key to explaining the scandal, the follow-the-money interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled Watergate and forced Nixon from office.

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

“Even then,” I write, “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 the Watergate-related recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the Watergate break-in.

WJC

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Tarring Murdoch with Hearst’s evil ‘vow’ to ‘furnish the war’

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War on July 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

Rupert Murdoch’s much-anticipated hearing yesterday before a Parliament committee was hardly very dramatic — save for the assault on the tough old media mogul by a chucklehead wielding a shaving cream-pie.

The hearing, which centered around the misconduct of journalists formerly in Murdoch’s employ, was more farce and tedium than high-noon encounter that threatened Murdoch’s far-reaching media empire.

Murdoch, who is 80 and clearly doddering, even won a measure of sympathy as victim of the none-too-bright shaving cream-pie attack.

What was fairly remarkable was that in the hearing’s aftermath at least a couple of U.S. commentators turned credulously to a hoary media myth to make points about Murdoch’s supposedly evil ways.

Hearst: Made no vow

The media myth is the tale that press baron William Randolph Hearst, in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century.

I describe in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, why that tale is almost surely apocryphal for reasons that include Hearst’s denial and the improbable context in which his message supposedly was sent.

One of the pundits invoking the media myth was Milos Stehlik, a commentator on WBEZ, an FM radio station in Chicago.

Stehlik likened Murdoch to Hearst and Charles Foster Kane, the fictional media baron in Citizen Kane, the 1941 movie loosely based on Hearst’s life.

“Kane, Hearst and Murdoch … share a political activism which pretends to help the media-consuming masses while, in reality, mostly helped their own privileged class,” Stehlik declared, before invoking the “furnish the war” myth as if it were genuine.

“Hearst,” he said, “told artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba, to send dispatches about the war. Remington sent Hearst a telegram saying there was no war in Cuba. Hearst famously told Remington to just provide him the pictures, and he would furnish the war.”

Meanwhile in Seattle, Jon Talton, a newspaper columnist on economic issues, posted a commentary that began this way:

“Press lord Rupert Murdoch isn’t accused of doing anything some of his notorious forebears wouldn’t have attempted given the technology. ‘You supply the pictures and I’ll supply the war,’ William Randolph Hearst is said to have instructed his Cuba correspondents as he ginned up circulation on the eve of the Spanish-American War.”

If Hearst had made the vow, it wouldn’t have been “on the eve of the Spanish-American War,” as Talton wrote in his column for the Seattle Times. It would have been in January 1897 — 15 months before the war began.

That was when Remington arrived in Havana, on a brief assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

Remington soon tired of the assignment and, the myth has it, cabled Hearst, stating:

“Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return.”

Hearst, in New York, supposedly replied by stating:

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

The anecdote’s sole original source was a blustering, cigar-chomping journalist named James Creelman, who recounted the tale in his 1901 memoir, On the Great Highway.

Creelman, though, did not explain how he heard about the Remington-Hearst exchange. It couldn’t have been first hand because at the time Remington was in Cuba, Creelman was in Spain, on assignment for the Journal.

That means Creelman could only have learned about the tale second-hand or, as is more likely, just made it up.

Significantly, the context of the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange makes no sense.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to ‘furnish the war’ because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the very reason Hearst sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

The rebellion was a vicious conflict that began in early 1895; by early 1897, it had reached islandwide proportion. As such, the rebellion attracted much attention in U.S. newspapers, including those published by Hearst.

So what may prompt pundits to turn credulously and not infrequently to the anecdote about Hearst and his supposed wickedness?

Because it’s arguably the most deliciously evil tale in journalism history, a tale that reveals Hearst’s ruthlessness and his warmongering. It’s a tale about journalism at its most sinister and malign, a tale wrapped in a dark and arrogant pledge to bring on a war the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

And these days, it’s a handy if indirect way of tarring Murdoch, by associating him with Hearst in the exclusive club of vile and villainous media magnates.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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The digital age ‘equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths on July 7, 2011 at 9:02 am

Anthony mug shot

The stunning acquittal of Casey Anthony on the most serious charges in the slaying of her 2-year-old daughter has invited comparisons to the outcome of O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in 1995.

Those comparisons are mostly misleading.

The “Media File” blog of the Reuters news agency, for example, likened the Anthony verdict to the digital age “equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial.”

Simpson was found not guilty in October 1995 of the stabbing deaths of his former wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

“Media File,” which was one of several outlets to detect parallels in the two cases, noted:

“Word of the verdict spread like wildfire … making a return to a normal life for newly-famous Anthony as unlikely as it was for already-famous Simpson 16 years ago.”

The blog also declared:

“Just as some greeted the Simpson verdict with tears and disbelief, there was much the same reaction about the Anthony verdict, including other mothers and daughters who railed against the verdict on the courthouse steps.

“Unlike OJ, who was accused of stabbing his [former] wife and one of her friends to death in a fit of jealous rage, there didn’t seem to be even the smallest cheering section for Anthony. Then again she was accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, whose skeletal remains were found near the family home with duct tape dangling from her skull.

“Anthony’s defense was considerably less adamant than Simpson’s ‘100% not guilty’ plea, but, like Simpson, she did not take the stand in her own defense.”

While interesting, the parallels are mostly superficial and unrevealing.

The Anthony proceedings in Florida hardly were in the league of the O.J. trial in Los Angeles.

Casey Anthony, unlike Simpson, was no national celebrity before she was tried on charges of killing her daughter, Caylee.

As Marcia Clark, the prosecutor who lost the Simpson trial, said of Anthony:

“She never wowed the nation with her athletic prowess, shilled in countless car commercials, or entertained in film comedies.” Simpson had been a star football player, a pitchman for the Hertz car rental company, and a supporting actor in movies such as The Naked Gun.

Race — a central, defining factor in Simpson’s trial — was absent in the Anthony trial.

As such, the verdict in her case, surprising though it was, prompted nothing akin to the divisive, clashing reactions that greeted Simpson’s acquittal: Many whites reacted with shock and disbelief while many blacks cheered the outcome.

Significantly, the Anthony case produced nothing akin to the moment at the end of the Simpson trial, when the country held its collective breath and awaited the verdicts.

The Simpson jury deliberated less than four hours before deciding the case on October 2, 1995.  The hapless judge who presided over the 134-day trial, Lance Ito, announced that the verdicts would be read the following day, at 10 a.m. Pacific time, 1 p.m. Eastern.

As that hour approached on October 3, 1995, the country seemed almost to shut down. The New York Times reported that for 10 minutes, from 1 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. Eastern, “people didn’t work. They didn’t go to math class. They didn’t make phone calls. They didn’t use the bathroom. They didn’t walk the dog.

“They listened to the O.J. Simpson verdicts,” in what the newspaper accurately called “an eerie moment of national communion, in which the routines and rituals of the country were subsumed by an unquenchable curiosity.

“Millions of people in millions of places seemed to spend 10 spellbinding minutes doing exactly the same thing.”

Those minutes represented an exceptional occasion of collective anticipation, an almost incomparable moment.

For the collective anticipation they generated, the final moments in the Simpson case were rivaled perhaps only by the first manned lunar landing in July 1969.

WJC

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The journos who saved us

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Murrow: Savior?

At their extreme, media-driven myths are hero-worshipping devices, invoked to venerate journalists as saviors.

Thankfully, such treatment is rare, and typically reserved for such journalists the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the Watergate reporting duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Brian Unger, host of a history program on cable television, indulged in a bit of journalists-idolatry in compiling for an Entertainment Weekly blog a list of a dozen heroic figures from TV shows and the movies.

On the list was Ed Murrow, whom Unger praised for “saving us from someone who pretended to be a great American patriot, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Also selected were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie stars who played Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President’s Men. “Armed only with a pen,” Unger wrote, “they saved the country from itself.”

Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible.

Murrow hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March 1954.

The show was aired four years after McCarthy began his communists-in-government witch-hunt, and four years after muckraking columnist Drew Pearson piercingly challenged and punctured many of McCarthy’s claims.

Pearson

The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow in the days after the show felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Years later, Murrow’s CBS colleague, Eric Severaid, chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said: “The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

As I write in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Americans in early 1954 weren’t “hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

By then they knew, thanks to the work of journalists such as Pearson.

Murrow no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the country from itself.”

Whatever that means.

It is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such subpoena-wielding entities as special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon “likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting” to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

Interestingly, principals at the Washington Post over the years have scoffed at the mythical and mediacentric interpretation that the newspaper brought down Nixon.

In 2005, for example, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Woodward, himself, declared in 2004, in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

But undoubtedly it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the country.

All the President’s Men easily is the most-viewed movie made about Watergate. And as I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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