W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘News’

15 years on, Jessica Lynch case a classic lesson about perils of unnamed sourcing

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 29, 2018 at 8:55 am

Fifteen years ago next week, the Washington Post published the most sensational, electrifying, and thoroughly botched front-page story about the early Iraq War.

The Post’s reporting deserves to be recalled as a classic lesson about the perils and lasting effects of basing news accounts on the word of anonymous sources whose identities, motives, and presumed access to first-hand knowledge can only be guessed at by readers.

Lynch in 2003

The Post told how Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk from West Virginia, had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” elements of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, 2003.

Lynch shot at attacking Iraqis even though she suffered “multiple gunshot wounds” and saw “several other soldiers in her unit die around her,” the Post reported.

Lynch kept “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition” and was taken prisoner, the Post further declared in its article, which appeared April 3, 2003, beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.'”

No one from the Post was with Lynch and her unit when it was ambushed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. No Western journalists were there.

The Post reported the hero-warrior story from Washington; two veteran reporters, Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, shared the byline. They based their breathless account about Lynch on the word of “U.S. officials,” whom they otherwise did not describe. They quoted one of the “officials” as memorably saying:

“She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.”

Schmidt and Loeb’s account gave few other details about Lynch’s heroics. Even so, the story went viral: As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the hero-warrior story picked up by news organizations around the world.

For many of those outlets, the good name of the Washington Post was adequate authority.

U.S. cable news shows, as the New York Times noted, “ran with a report from The Washington Post that the 19-year-old P.O.W. had been shot and stabbed yet still kept firing at enemy soldiers.”

The New York Times also published a commentary by Melani McAlister, an American Studies scholar, who compared Lynch to Hannah Dunston and other long-ago American heroines.

A commentary in USA Today  described Lynch as “the latest in a long line of women who prove their sex’s capacity for steely heroism.”

A columnist for the Hartford Courant quoted the historian Douglas Brinkley as likening Lynch to an “Annie Oakley of the high-tech world.” Lynch was, the columnist wrote, “the nation’s latest unlikely combat celebrity.”

Lynch, as it soon turned out, had been neither shot nor stabbed. She had not fired her weapon; it had jammed during the ambush.

She was badly injured attempting to flee the ambush in a Humvee. According to her biographer, Rick Bragg, she cowered in the back seat, praying, “Oh God help us. Oh God, get us out of here.”

The Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, fatally injuring the driver and three other occupants. The impact shattered bones in Lynch’s body. She was unconscious when captured by the Iraqis and she lingered near death for nine days at an Iraqi hospital that doubled as a staging area for Iraqi irregular troops. On April 1, 2003, Lynch was rescued by U.S. special forces.

The Post’s erroneous reporting about Lynch’s derring-do was the subject of searching commentary by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, a straight-shooter who died this month at 82.

Getler criticized the Post’s reporting about Lynch while making clear the issue was “about journalism: about sources and reporters, motivation and manipulation, and finding the truth, as best we can, about a story that became the best known saga of the war” in its early days.

Getler was right. The botched report was, fundamentally, a cautionary lesson about journalists and unnamed sources — about the hazards of basing news reports on such sources.

The Post’s sourcing on the hero-warrior story about Lynch was opaque. It offered readers no explanation about who the “U.S. officials” were or where they worked. It gave readers no insight as to why the “U.S. officials” required or received the cloak of anonymity.

The sourcing was so vague that a pernicious assumption soon arose that the Pentagon had concocted the tale about Lynch’s heroism and fed it to the Post as a way to bolster public support for the war. That’s a false narrative, one the Post has done very little to counteract, beyond comments Loeb once made in a radio interview.

Loeb, who is now managing editor at the Houston Chronicle, went on NPR’s  Fresh Air show program in December 2003 to say he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

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

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

He also said:

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

Loeb said the “U.S. officials” cited in the Lynch article were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C., and added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

As if that’s adequate reason to excuse or exonerate a news outlet that transmits bogus information on a major story.

The narrative that the Pentagon made it up has persisted. For example, London’s Independent newspaper recalled the Lynch case a few years ago and asserted that “the Pentagon exaggerated her story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”

(Lynch has long insisted she was no hero — although she has said she could have embraced the bogus hero-warrior tale and no one would’ve been the wiser.)

The Post’s opaque sourcing also gave rise to serious misidentification. The author Jon Krakauer declared in his 2009 book, Where Men With Glory, that a White House official named Jim Wilkinson had “arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access” to the information about Lynch’s supposed heroism.

Wilkinson denied the unattributed claim and met with Krakauer who, in a subsequent paperback edition of the book, inserted a footnote containing an obscure retraction that said:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

The Post’s opaque sourcing also had the effect of diverting attention from a real hero of Nasiriyah — Sgt. Donald Walters.

Walters apparently did fight to the death, laying down covering fire as Lynch and her comrades tried to escape the ambush.

When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and executed by his captors soon afterward.

His heroism apparently was misattributed to Lynch, in a case of mistaken identity. In any event, Walters’ fate received little media attention. Unlike Jessica Lynch, Donald Walters never made the cover of popular magazines such as Newsweek, People, or Time.

Anonymous sourcing can have powerful and harmful effects, as the Lynch case shows. These effects still could be corrected should the Post summon the courage to identify the “U.S. officials” who led the newspaper astray on a sensational and memorable story 15 years ago.

To that point, Getler in a column in November 2003 quoted a reader as saying that considering the Post’s “starring role in perpetuating the myth” about Lynch and her battlefield heroics, its journalists “ought to have … done some top-notch, multi-story investigative reporting on who concocted this hoax and how they were able to hoodwink the public with it through the national media.

A fine suggestion. Even now, such reporting would make for great reading.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Advertisements

The ‘Cronkite Moment,’ 50 years on: Remembering why it’s a media myth

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on February 25, 2018 at 6:15 pm

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary “Cronkite Moment” — a fitting occasion to recall why the “moment” so treasured by journalists is but a hoary if tenacious media myth.

On February 27, 1968, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite presented a prime-time report about his reporting trip to Vietnam. At the program’s close, he declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” there and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

As the myth has it, President Lyndon B. Johnson watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s comment about “stalemate,” snapped off the television and told an aide or aides something to this effect:

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

In any case, it is said that the anchorman’s remarks came as an epiphany to the president, who realized his war policy was a shambles.

The account of the anchorman’s telling hard truth to power is irresistible to journalists seeking a telling example of media influence and power. Chris Matthews, the voluble host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, brought up the “Cronkite Moment” the other day while ruminating about whether “people in the media today would or could issue such a verdict [as Cronkite’s] on the killing fields that are now our schools.”

Matthews, who credulously invoked the “Cronkite Moment” tale several years ago in a book review for the New York Times, declared on “Hardball” that Cronkite’s comments 50 years ago “came as a shocker.

“Here was the most trusted man in America delivering a verdict on a conflict the United States government was saying was winnable. President Lyndon Johnson knew its power. ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite,’ he said, clicking off the TV, ‘I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also extolled the “Cronkite Moment,” saying recently in an extravagant and lengthy essay that Cronkite “went on national TV to speak the truth, [to say] that the fighting was, at best, a ‘stalemate’ and that it was time for America to negotiate an honorable peace and leave the Southeast Asian nation.

“The CBS anchor’s surprising and out-of-character editorial,” the essay said, “may have nudged LBJ out of the White House, but it also served as a tipping point toward what became a brief golden age of truth-telling in American journalism.”

Cronkite’s program 50 years ago was neither fulcrum for dislodging Johnson nor “tipping point” in any “golden age of truth-telling.” Its effects were far more modest. Even marginal.

Here’s why (this rundown is adapted from a chapter about the “Cronkite Moment” in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong):

  • Cronkite said nothing about Vietnam that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By early 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal — even fairly orthodox — way of characterizing the conflict.
  • Cronkite’s remarks were far more temperate than other contemporaneous media assessments about the war. Days before Cronkite’s program, for example, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”
  • Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was at a black-tie birthday party in Texas at the time and it is unclear whether, or when, he watched it afterward on videotape. The presumed power of the “Cronkite Moment” rests in its sudden, and profound effect on the president: Such an effect would have been absent, or sharply diluted, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.
  • In the days and weeks afterward, Johnson was conspicuously hawkish in public remarks about the war — as if he had in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment to rally popular support for the war effort.
  • Until late in his life, Cronkite pooh-poohed the notion his pronouncement had much effect on Johnson: He presumed its impact was like that of a straw on the back of a crippled camel. Cronkite invoked such an analogy in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.
  • Long before Cronkite’s report, public opinion had begun shifting against the war. Polling data and journalists’ observations indicate that a turning point came in Fall 1967. Indeed, it can be said that Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam. As Daniel C. Hallin wrote in the now-defunct Media Studies Journal in 1998: “Lyndon Johnson had essentially lost Mr. Average Citizen months before Cronkite’s broadcast.”
  • Johnson’s surprise announcement March 31, 1968, that he would not seek reelection to the presidency pivoted not on Cronkite’s report a month before but more likely on the advice of an informal group of senior advisers, known as the “Wise Men.” The “Wise Men” met at the White House a few days before Johnson’s announcement and, to the president’s surprise, advised disengagement from Vietnam.

To be sure, it is far easier to claim blithely that Cronkite’s report 50 years ago altered the equation on Vietnam than to dig into its back story and trace its aftermath.

It’s even easier to abridge Cronkite’s remarks, to make them seem more emphatic and dramatic than they were. Which is what Matthews did on his show the other night.

Here, Matthews said, “is some of what [Cronkite] said.

“‘We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. It is increasingly clear to this reporter the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.'”

That mashed-together excerpt represents slightly more than 25 percent of Cronkite’s closing remarks.

Here’s what the anchorman actually said:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that — negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms.

“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsartisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Cronkite’s concluding remarks were hedged and somewhat rambling — and hardly an emphatic, straight-line statement about futility of the war.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

NYT turns obscure statement into prominent blurb to tout its Pentagon Papers reporting

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm

“The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The New York Times has turned recently to that expansive claim, most conspicuously in a full-page advertisement, to suggest the rival Washington Post once praised the Times for disclosing the Pentagon Papers.

The quotation has been interpreted as the Times’ giving the Washington Post a thumb in the eye amid the much-ballyhooed limited release of Steven Spielberg‘s cinematic hagiography, The Post.

The movie dramatizes the Washington Post’s secondary role in reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — a focus surely irritating to the Times. (The Times’ review of the film observed that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”)

The quotation attributed to the Washington Post and seeming to commend the Times appears as a front-cover blurb for a new book that brings together the Times’ award-winning articles about the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s once-secret history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The quotation was displayed prominently in a full-page advertisement the Times published the other day (see image nearby) to call attention to the book. The quotation also appears at a Web page promoting the book at the Times’ online store.

But when did the Washington Post make that statement?

Not in the aftermath of the Times’ disclosures of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, as the blurb may suggest: A search of the full-text ProQuest database containing Washington Post content from 1877 through 1997 turned up no such statement.

Front cover blurb

A similar — but somewhat less assertive — statement appeared in the Washington Post in June 2011, in an 850-word article about the government’s declassification of the Pentagon Papers. That article was retrieved from the Nexis database and from a search on Google. Its opening sentence reads:

“The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

As “one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The Washington Post’s report also noted that declassification came “40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times.” But the article did not commend the Times for the revelations — an interpretation that’s certainly suggested by the blurb in the ad and on the book cover.

I asked the Times’ communications staff about the derivation of the quotation and was directed to this site, a rudimentary searchable archive the Washington Post set up, probably in 2011, to permit readers to review the declassified Pentagon Papers. An introductory statement posted at the site said:

“Four decades after the most significant leaks of classified material in American history, the Pentagon Papers have remained classified — until now. Read the full archive of the declassified documents as released by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

So that’s the source of the statement that the Times has invoked as a money quote to tout and recall its enterprise on the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post said it, but clearly in a trivial and off-hand way. It was no prominent pronouncement. Or even a passage in a news article or commentary.

It was made obscurely, and it said nothing about the Times’ enterprise.

The Times’ turning the obscure statement into a prominent blurb underscores that its rivalry with the Washington Post remains keen. Of late, the Times has seemed eager to direct attention to its disclosures about the Pentagon Papers, in light of the favorable reviews of Spielberg’s movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post was undeniably beaten on the Pentagon Papers story in 1971; it started printing excerpts of its own after the federal government enjoined the Times from publishing reports it had prepared drawn from the secret history. Soon after its excerpts began appearing, the Post was similarly restrained by a federal appeals court.

Both newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court which, at the end of June 1971, invalidated the government’s restraint in a 6-to-3 decision and the injunctions were lifted.

The Times’ reporting on the Pentagon Papers won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Post won no Pulitzers that year.

Writing at the “Deadline Hollywood” entertainment news site the other day, Jeremy Gerard discussed the Times’ recent full-page book ad, calling it “a puckish thumb-in-the-eye to the competition” and noting that the “promo is topped with a money quote – ‘The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’ – from, that’s right, the Washington Post.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

WaPo’s ‘five myths’ feature about Vietnam ignores ‘Cronkite Moment,’ Nixon ‘secret plan,’ ‘Napalm Girl’

In 'Napalm girl', Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post on October 2, 2017 at 5:34 pm

You might think that a collection of leading myths about the Vietnam War surely would include the “Cronkite Moment.”

LBJ: Not tuned to Cronkite

Or would cite the hoary claim that Richard Nixon during his run for the presidency in 1968 touted a “secret plan” to end the war.

Or would address the mistaken notion that American warplanes dropped the napalm that burned Kim Phuc, the girl at the center of the “Napalm Girl” photograph taken in 1972.

Those are the three most prominent, persistent, and popular media myths about Vietnam.

Yet none of them figured in the Washington Post’s rundown, published yesterday, discussing five “deeply entrenched myths” about the war.

The Post’s compilation, which was pegged to the recent 18-hour PBS documentary series about Vietnam, included such “myths” as: “The refugees who came to the U.S. were Vietnam’s elite” and “American soldiers [in Vietnam] were mostly draftees.”

To be sure, those are not unimportant aspects of the war. But “deeply entrenched myths”? Maybe.

But maybe not.

They’re certainly not invoked as frequently as the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s downbeat, on-air assessment about Vietnam supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Upon hearing Cronkite’s characterization, Johnson, it is said, recognized that his war policy was in tatters.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. And it is not clear when, or whether, Johnson watched the program on videotape at some later date.

Not only that, but Johnson publicly doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks after Cronkite’s program.

The president remained conspicuously hawkish on the war at a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent and influential. Instead, Johnson in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s pessimism and sought to rally popular support for the flagging war effort.

Besides, what Cronkite said — that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” — was hardly a novel or shattering analysis. “Stalemate” had been invoked in the American press for months to characterize the conflict.

That Nixon had a “secret plan” to end the war, but wouldn’t say what it was during his campaign in 1968, is another tenacious myth.

What ‘secret plan’?

The anecdote seems superficially plausible, given Nixon’s inclination to deceit and duplicity.

But it’s a campaign pledge he never made. (William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, periodically called attention to the “secret plan” myth, once observing: “Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the [Nixon] non-quotation never seems to go away ….”)

Nixon never made a “secret plan” part of his campaign. In fact, he pointedly and publicly disavowed such a notion. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President Johnson.”

Had Nixon claimed during the 1968 campaign to possess a “secret plan” for Vietnam, the country’s leading newspapers inevitably would have seized on the claim and publicized it.

They didn’t.

Ut: Took the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

The myths of the “Napalm Girl” surely have become “deeply entrenched” since the photograph was taken in June 1972 by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. Prominent among those myths is that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

In fact, the attack was carried out by A-1 Skyraiders of the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

The myth of U.S. culpability nonetheless took hold years ago, misappropriated to illustrate the consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam. But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to make that argument is to misrepresent the photograph, distort its meaning, and garble the circumstances of its making.”

And for sure, the photograph has been often misrepresented.

Related myths have it that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful it turned American public opinion against the war (it didn’t), that it hastened an end to the war (the conflict went on till April 1975), and that it appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country (page-one display was far from unanimous).

It’s worth noting that yesterday’s compilation was not the first time that a “five myths” rundown in the Post ignored obvious candidates.

An essay published in May about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate unaccountably overlooked the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s own reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

For the media, Harvey was no Katrina redux; here’s why

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on September 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

Twelve years ago today, newspaper headlines across the United States told of chaos and anarchy that supposedly was sweeping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Katrina churns, 2005

“Anger, Anarchy, Desperation,” declared the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of  September 2, 2005.

“Crisis to Chaos,” said the Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona. “Toward Anarchy,” cried the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut. “Descent into Chaos,” asserted the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Snipers fired on cops and rescue workers” in New Orleans, reported the New York Daily News. “Gangs of looters took anything that wasn’t nailed down.”

In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune newspaper (see image nearby) declared on its front page of September 2, 2005, that “chaos and lawlessness rule the streets.”

The horror and mayhem that news organizations so widely reported 12 years ago proved highly exaggerated, but it had the effect of tainting a city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism, despite some attempts to characterize it as such.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall,” I wrote, “news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. … They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported that roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome [where hundreds of storm evacuees took shelter], raping and killing. They said that 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 was verified or substantiated.” Little of it was true.

D-minus was a grade none too severe for the post-Katrina coverage.

“Americans depend on timely and accurate reporting, especially during times of crisis,” a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives later said in a 600-page report about the hurricane’s aftermath, adding that “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted,” the report declared, “it was the media. Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

It is useful now to recall the erroneous and exaggerated coverage of Katrina’s aftermath because the destructive sweep of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas at the end of last month gave rise to little such egregious misreporting and produced few if any examples of the media having “rioted” in their storm coverage.

For news organizations, Harvey was no Katrina.

Here are some reasons why:

• Reasonably competent public officials. In Texas, state and local officials — including the mayor of Houston — were more credible, knowledgeable, and restrained than were senior public officials in New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, and Eddie Compass, the then-police commissioner, were sources for some of the most gruesome yet erroneous reports of lawlessness in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the Superdome. The mayor said conditions there 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.”

Compass spoke of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” the police commissioner said of the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were widely reported — but were almost completely without foundation. (Months later, Compass said he passed along rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”)

By contrast, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, projected an image of even-tempered authority. He spoke often to the news media, typically in measured and sedate tones. He didn’t preen for the cameras, and certainly didn’t mischaracterize his city as having been seized by violence and lawlessness. The only significant controversy to swirl around Turner was whether he should have ordered a mandatory evacuation as Harvey approached from the Gulf of Mexico.

No narrative-shifting surprises. Katrina’s aftermath marked by a surprising and decisive turn after the storm had passed: Not long after it appeared the city had been spared the hurricane’s worst effects, levees protecting the city began to fail, sending floodwaters across much of New Orleans. That development abruptly shifted news coverage of Katrina from having escaped a close call to something more grim and devastating. New Orleans was mostly under water and rumors of social disintegration, many of which made their way into news reports, soon were circulating.

Harvey was forecast to drop upwards of 50 inches of rain on parts of southeastern Texas, predictions that proved largely accurate. Journalists, at least in broad terms, knew what to expect; the absence of a narrative-altering surprise allowed them to keep story lines trained on storm victims, rescues and evacuations, without having to chase bleak rumors of mayhem and violence.

Principal controversies that arose about post-Harvey coverage focused on questions of media ethics — whether it was appropriate for a reporter to send Twitter messages about what he considered looting, and when a reporter should pull back from an on-camera interview of a clearly distraught storm victim.

Dubious memes were quickly debunked. An image of a shark plying floodwaters in Texas received a brief and apparently credulous mention on the Fox News Channel, but the photograph soon was exposed as fake. For a time, the Washington Post’s “Intersect” blog kept a running list of storm-related hoaxes and exaggerations that appeared on social media. Such compilations helped keep a lid on the over-the-top stuff.

Social media platforms — most of which hadn’t been developed in 2005 — seemed to have performed fairly well, overall. Notably, Facebook and Twitter became in Harvey’s aftermath lifelines for storm victims and their families.

Stirring images. Some of the most memorable photographs of Harvey were not of agony and grim misery (like the Times-Picayune front page of September 2, 2005) but were heartening — such as the one of a Houston police SWAT officer striding in knee-deep flood water, carrying woman who was cradling her 13-month-old son. The image was taken by an Associated Press photographer and became “a symbol of the storm and rescue efforts,” as a Houston television station described it.

AP photo/David J. Phillip

The AP photographer, David J. Phillip, captured another memorable image of the storm — a panorama of a flooded Houston boulevard where a swarm of human forms confronted the waters in a tableau of evident grit, resilience, and aquatic rescue. The photo at once testified to turmoil the hurricane had created and to an absence of turmoil in response.

The post-landfall coverage of Harvey may not have been magnificent, but in all it didn’t merit a D-minus.

I’d give it a B, at least.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

NYTimes recalls ‘Napalm Girl’ (and other famous ‘pictures of war’); overstates its impact

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Photographs, Scandal on December 15, 2016 at 4:43 pm

Prominently displayed on the front page of today’s New York Times were powerful images of war — the memorable and myth-burdened “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972 among them.

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-12-31-42-pmThe wartime images accompanied an essay about the misery of Syria’s battered city, Aleppo, once a rebel stronghold in the country’s prolonged civil war.

“They keep coming,” the essay began, “both the bombs and the images from Aleppo, so many of them ….”

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert was a passage deeper in the essay that invoked “Napalm Girl“:

“Pictures of war and suffering have pricked the public conscience and provoked action before. … There was Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph from South Vietnam of the naked 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, screaming, burned by napalm. These pictures drove news cycles for weeks, months, years, helping tip the scales of policy.”

Well, not in case of “Napalm Girl.”

The photograph, which showed a cluster of terror-stricken children fleeing an errant napalm attack on their village northwest of what was then called Saigon, provoked no prolonged conversation in the American press in the days following its publication. It prompted few newspaper editorials.

There’s no evidence, moreover, that “Napalm Girl”  helped “tip the scales of policy.” (The essay in the Times cited none.)

I address the myths of “Napalm Girl” in my book, Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which was  published recently.

“Over the years,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the superlatives associated with the image have edged into hyperbole and exaggeration. Napalm Girl has become invested with mythic qualities and a power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can project.”

Among the myths is that “Napalm Girl” was so arresting and extraordinary that it appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the United States. I present data challenging that notion, reporting in Getting It Wrong that of 40 major U.S. dailies examined, 21 placed the photograph on the front page in the days soon after it was taken on June 8, 1972.

Fourteen of the 21 newspapers displayed “Napalm Girl” above the front-page fold, a newspaper’s most coveted placement.

But 19 newspapers examined either did not publish “Napalm Girl” or placed the photograph on an inside page.

Reservations about front nudity no doubt led some newspapers to decline to publish “Napalm Girl” or give it prominence, I note, although the depth of such reluctance is difficult to measure.

In any event, it is clear that “Napalm Girl” did not drive “news cycles for weeks, months, years,” as the Times’ essay asserted.

Nor did the image drive policy.

It had no discernible effect on the U.S. policy of Vietnamization, which was put in place during the presidency of Richard Nixon and sought to shift the bulk of fighting to America’s South Vietnamese allies.

By June 1972, most American combat troops had been removed from South Vietnam, a drawdown neither slowed nor accelerated by publication of “Napalm Girl.”

This is not to say Nixon was unaware of the photograph, however. He briefly discussed “Napalm Girl” with his top White House aide, H.R. Haldeman, a conversation captured on Nixon’s secret taping system.

The tapes show that Haldeman on June 12, 1972, brought up what he called the “napalm thing.” Nixon replied by saying:

“I wonder if that was a fix” meaning: Was the image staged?

“Could have been,” Haldeman said, adding, “Napalm bothers people. You get a picture of a little girl with her clothes burnt off.”

“I wondered about that,” Nixon replied.

The photograph had no known effect on Nixon’s thinking about the war, I write in Getting It Wrong, pointing out that his attention was soon diverted. On June 17, 1972, burglars linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign were arrested inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, the signal crime of what ballooned into the Watergate scandal.

Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary’s links to his campaign — a scheme he discussed with Haldeman in tape-recorded conversation June 23, 1972 — eventually cost Nixon the presidency.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Addressing ‘fake news,’ stirring up media myths

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War on December 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Mainstream media have been beside themselves of late, lamenting and fretting about a supposed  surge of “fake news,” in which dubious tales circulated online pollute and corrupt popular discourse.

span-am war_journal

Not to blame: The yellow press and war with Spain

In their hand-wringing assessments, news outlets also have stirred up references to hoary media-driven myths, which can be thought of as variants of fake news, only more prominent and entrenched. Despite their thorough debunking, media myths often are recited as if they were true.

As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, media myths are memorable tales about and/or by the news that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

For an example of a news outlet stirring up a media myth while ruminating about “fake news,” consider the essay published the other day in the Washington Times. “Fake news,” it declared, is nothing new.

Sure enough. But the essay soon dialed up a media myth, declaring:

“Candidates for public office routinely make statements divorced from truth. Was it ‘fake’ news for 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon to maintain he had a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War when he had no such thing?”

But Nixon made no such claim: He did not “maintain” or otherwise declare during his campaign in 1968 that he had such a plan.

In fact, candidate Nixon disavowed such a notion during the 1968 primary season. In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he was further quoted as saying, “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 in 1968 may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind. But he did not make such a claim a plank or component of his campaign. That is clear in reviewing 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 touting or otherwise saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. (The search period included the months of Nixon’s presidential campaign and its aftermath.)

Had Nixon made such a “secret plan” claim during the campaign, the country’s leading daily newspapers surely would have publicized it.

But despite the evidence that can be arrayed to debunk it, the notion that Nixon possessed a  “secret plan” can be simply too delicious — and too Nixonian in its supposed duplicity — to resist retelling.  As William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and columnist for the New York Times, once observed:

“Like the urban myth of crocodiles in the sewers, the non-quotation [about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’] never seems to go away ….”

Another tenacious media myth is that sensational yellow journalism forced the United States into war in 1898 over Spain’s rule of Cuba.

That dubious interpretation has long been rejected by serious historians of the period. But it was invoked the other day in an segment on Public Radio International’s “The World” program.

The show’s resident history authority, Christopher Woolf, claimed that sensational reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal about the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 fired up American public opinion which, in turn, prompted Congress to declare war on Spain in April 1898.

It’s a tired syllogism that erroneously blames yellow journalism for a conflict that had far deeper and far more substantial causes, as I discussed in my book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Essentially, the syllogism founders on the absence of evidence that Hearst’s Journal exerted decisive influence on public opinion, or on the administration of President William McKinley, in the run-up to war.

As I point out in Yellow Journalism, an impressive body of research had been compiled over the years, indicating that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, or ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow press — the newspapers of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer — in the run-up to the war.

Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, many newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses.

Not only that, but top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the Hearst and Pulitzer papers. Officials certainly didn’t turn to the yellow press for guidance in shaping policy.

“If the yellow press did foment the war,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, “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 McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

The yellow press, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century observed, did not “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

Those differences stemmed from Spain’s harsh and futile measures to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in February 1895 — measures that gave rise to a humanitarian crisis on the island. Thousands of Cuban non-combattants — women, children, and old men — were herded into garrison towns in a policy the Spanish called “reconcentration.” The objective was to deprive the Cuban rebels of support of the citizenry; the upshot of the policy was that non-combattants suffered immensely from hunger and disease.

Far more than the content of Hearst’s Journal, the humanitarian crisis caused by reconcentration prompted the United States to go to war with Spain in 1898.

But of course, it’s more delicious, and simplistic, to blame the supposed war-mongering newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2015

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

Media Myth Alert called attention in 2015 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases in which celebrities took up and repeated dubious tall tales about journalists and their work.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of the year, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2015.

Celebrities pushing media myths: Garrison Keillor and Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow (posted April 29): I noted in 2015 that the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century has become zombie-like: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Keillor_WritersAlmanacThe hoary old myth received a boost in April when, on the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth, the humorist and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, blithely invoked the unsubstantiated anecdote, which reinforces the superficial and misleading notion of Hearst as war-mongering newspaper publisher.

“In 1898,” Keillor told listeners of his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, “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 described in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Keillor

Keillor

Notably, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegraphed messages that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message, had it been sent.

Moreover, the sole original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote, James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, never said how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

And almost no one remembers that Hearst denied having sent such a message.

By the way, the transcript of Keillor’s remarks about Hearst and Remington remains posted at the “Writer’s Almanac” Web site. Uncorrected.

Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat”: Why is he biopic worthy? (posted November 27): W. Mark Felt, a disgraced former senior FBI official best-known as a secret source in the Watergate scandal, is to receive hero’s treatment in a biopic to be called Felt.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Peter Landesman, who is to produce and direct the film, was quoted last week as saying Felt will be akin to “a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.”

But why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy?

He was no noble or heroic figure.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the FBI’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the agency’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

FBI agents who conducted the illegal break-ins went through “desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen,” according to an account in the New York Times. “With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents” belonging to relatives of Weather radicals.

In 1980, Felt was convicted of felony charges related to those warrantless break-ins, which were known in the FBI as “black bag jobs.” He was fined $5,000 but not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The following year, Felt received an unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged at trial having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller argued that the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan trips over the “Cronkite Moment” myth (posted August 30): In late summer, the Wall Street Journal’s prominent weekend columnist, Peggy Noonan, attempted to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his soaring presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Noonan tripped over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan

Noonan

That “moment” was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in visceral reaction, said something to the effect of:

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

But as I discussed in  Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president then was attending a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally.

I also noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War: “Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite spoke the word on the air.

In her column, Noonan referred to shifting contours in American politics that have boosted Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She also wrote:

“Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may have been indirect and a bit confusing, given the topic of her column. But there was no doubt she was treating as authentic one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

Another prominent columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also referred to the “Cronkite Moment” in 2015.

Dowd did so in February, in a commentary that ruminated about the bizarre falsehoods told by Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News, about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: Williams claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Dowd, after noting that network evening news shows are shells of their much-watched former selves, turned implicitly to the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that CBS anchorman had “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say “we were losing.” He said the war was stalemated and that negotiations might eventually prove to be the way out. But saying so posed no risk to Cronkite’s career. By then, it was commonplace, and safe, to say the war had reached a stalemate.

No, Politico: Ben Bradlee’s WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon (posted May 27): In an account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Politico invoked the hardy media myth that the Post’s reporting on the scandal “brought down a president.”

Politico logoOf course, it had no such effect, as Bradlee himself had said, on the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate–the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

On Meet the Press in June 1997, Bradlee said “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee, who died in 2014, was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in conspiring to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin at the DNC headquarters.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s presidency represents 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 attempted coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal. Modest at best. They were hardly decisive, Politico’s claim notwithstanding.

Jorge Ramos, media-myth-teller (posted September 5): The international reach of media-driven myths was best defined in 2015 when Jorge Ramos, the self-important anchorman for Univision, went on an ABC News program and claimed that the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

He stated:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have—Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon—that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Ramos, who has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” invoked a similar claim a few days later in a commentary posted at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico.

What prompted these claims was Ramos’ conduct a news conference convened by Donald Trump. Ramos insisted on posing a question before being called on, a showboating moment that led to his being escorted from the room.

In any event, Ramos was wrong about the Post, its reporters, and Watergate.

Not even the newspaper’s principal figures during the Watergate period embraced the notion that the Post forced Nixon to quit in August 1974.

Notable among them was the publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham. She said 1997:

“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.”

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2015:

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 that 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

More from Media Myth Alert:

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

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

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

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little more than two years earlier, just 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said “yes,” U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said “no.”

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening in support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that the previous summer and fall had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

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

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: