W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Phone-hacking’

Recalling Hearst to bash Murdoch: Superficial and off-target

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2011 at 12:26 am

Hearst: Murdoch's model?

The fallout from the phone-hacking scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain has prompted unflattering comparisons that the tough old media mogul is but a latter-day reincarnation of William Randolph Hearst, American press lord of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Trouble is, such comparisons are facile and no better than superficial. Hearst, for example, hardly established the international presence that Murdoch commands.

And these off-target comparisons have become an occasion to indulge in the hoary media myth that Hearst and his yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Sun Herald newspaper of Mississippi, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2006 for coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast, did just that in an editorial published over the weekend.

“Not since William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire sensationalized news and gave a distinctive yellow tinge to journalism has the world seen the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian/American media lord whose News Corporation has spread its tabloid brand in print and on the airwaves to so many corners of the globe,” the Sun Herald harrumphed in its editorial.

Of Hearst, the Sun Herald further stated:

“His newspapers were so powerful in molding public opinion that they were credited with pushing the United States into war with Spain in 1898.”

Really?

No.

As I pointed out in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, critics who blame the yellow press of Hearst (and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer) for bringing on the war invariably fail to explain how the contents of those newspapers came to be transformed into policy and military action.

How did that work? What was the mechanism? Why was the yellow press so singularly powerful at that moment in American history?

In truth, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, there was no mechanism by which the newspapers’ contents were translated into policy and a decision to go to war. They were not that powerful.

Had the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer brought about the war with Spain, then “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,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, adding:

“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.”

In short, senior officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of what was called the yellow press. They did not turn to it for guidance or insight in policymaking.

Their thinking was not shaped by yellow journalism.

A variation of the Murdoch-Hearst criticism is to assail Murdoch — as a commentary  posted yesterday at Huffington Post put it — “the latest prime purveyor of so-called ‘yellow journalism’.”

The author, novelist Terence Clarke, declared that yellow journalism as practiced by Hearst and Pulitzer “sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers.

“It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Now, with Murdoch leading the way, journalism in many instances has fallen victim to the same wish for sales, and has descended, again, from the high ground it should occupy.”

Oh, spare us such superficiality.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer was much more than merely sensational.

Anyone who has spent much time reading through their newspapers of the late 19th century invariably comes away impressed with the aggressive and news-oriented approaches they took.

David Nasaw, author of a commendably even-handed biography of Hearst, pointed this out notably well, writing:

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

Not only that, but Hearst was willing to spend lavishly to get the news. He, much more so than Pulitzer, was inclined to tap prominent writers, such as Mark Twain, and pay them well to cover important events for his New York Journal.

Hearst paid $3,000 to the novelist, playwright, and foreign correspondent Richard Harding Davis to spend a month for the Journal in Cuba in early 1897, writing reports about the Cuban rebellion that was the proximate cause of the Spanish-American War.

That sum is the equivalent today of more than $50,000.

Moreover, the yellow press of the late 19th century exerted a lasting and profound influence on American journalism history.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre “was much decried but its salient features often were emulated.”

Yellow journalism “was appealing and distinctive in its typography, in its lavish use of illustrations, in its aggressive newsgathering techniques,” I noted, adding:

“To a striking degree, features characteristic of the yellow press live on in American journalism, notably in the colorful layouts that characterize the formerly staid titles that used to disparage the yellow press—titles such as the New York Times and Washington Post.”

WJC

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Imprecise, overwrought Watergate analogies emerge in Murdoch scandal

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

Meeting his Watergate?

Watergate has become a frequent though imprecise point of reference for the reporting scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain, prompting the closure of a leading Sunday tabloid, the resignation of two executives prominent in his news empire, and groveling apologies in print.

The scandal, which centers on illegal hacking of cell phone voicemail, has come to called Murdoch’s Watergate, a characterization embraced especially by Murdoch’s  enemies in America, hoping that this imbroglio may finally brings down the tough old media mogul.

The phone-hacking scandal is “a debacle that features Murdoch starring in the eerily similar role as the one Dick Nixon played,” declared Eric Boehlert in an essay posted the other day at Huffington Post.

Carl Bernstein, who teamed with Bob Woodward in covering Watergate for the Washington Post, has notably promoted the Murdoch-Watergate comparison.

In an essay titled “Murdoch’s Watergate?” and published recently in Newsweek, Bernstein wrote, not surprisingly:

“For this reporter, it is impossible not to consider these facts through the prism of Watergate. … The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within [Murdoch's] News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

But it’s imprecise, premature, and a bit overwrought to liken the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.

It’s no Watergate. Not yet, anyway. And it’s certainly not clear that Murdoch authorized policies that “routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

Watergate was sui generis, an unprecedented constitutional crisis that led in to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974. He was the first U.S. president ever to resign.

In addition, 19 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for Watergate-related crimes. (Woodward once called Watergate “an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel.”)

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension required, as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “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 survived and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most private conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. (Woodward has endorsed that interpretation as well. He said in an online chat at washingtonpost.com in 1997 that “if the tapes had never been discovered, or [Nixon] had burned them, he almost surely would not have had to resign, in my view.”)

Toppling Nixon was no certain outcome of Watergate, at least not in the first year or so of the slowly unfolding scandal. And bringing down Nixon wasn’t a consequence of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, hoary media myth notwithstanding.

The phone-hacking scandal — in which reporters and private investigators for Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid broke into the voicemail of scores of people — has been an occasion to conjure Watergate in another way. In a romanticized, glowing way that recalls Watergate as a golden age in American journalism.

The Houston Chronicle has given expression to the golden-age sentiment.

The newspaper declared in a tut-tutting editorial the other day that the phone-hacking scandal “is a very long way from the saga of All the President’s Men, the uplifting account of how two dogged young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with the backing of ethically responsible Washington Post management, broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission and exhibited the finest aspects of the profession.”

All the President’s Men was Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting. The book’s cinematic version came out in 1976 and helped solidify the mythical notion that the Post brought down Nixon.

It deserves noting that the Chronicle’s editorial errs in at least three respects.

One, the Post management was not always so “ethically responsible” during Watergate.

For example, top editors approved an ethically suspect scheme allowing Woodward and Bernstein to approach federal grand jurors hearing Watergate testimony and ask them to break their vows of secrecy. As the reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, the ill-advised overtures to grand jurors nearly landed them in jail.

Two, the Post did not break the Watergate scandal.

The signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters — was interrupted by police. Within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The Post’s article about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and it drew heavily on information from investigators.

In subsequent Watergate reporting, moreover, the Post exposed  neither the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in, nor the payment of hush money to the burglars. Nor did it break the news about Nixon’s secret audiotapes.

Three, the claim that coverage of Watergate “inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission” is exaggerated.

Watergate produced no enrollment surge in journalism programs at American colleges and university. Enrollment growth in fact had begun well before Woodward and Bernstein wrote their first Watergate-related story in 1972.

Still, as I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of students to take up journalism “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

Like many media-driven myths, the tale of inspiration is almost too good not to be true.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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Carl Bernstein, disingenuous

In Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, writes scathingly and at length in the latest Newsweek about the phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch’s media operations in Britain and prompted the closing of London’s largest Sunday tabloid, the News of the World.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Inevitably, Bernstein invokes the Watergate scandal of 1972-74– but conveniently skips over the borderline illegal conduct he and his Washington Post colleague, Bob Woodward, engaged in, in asking federal grand jurors to break their oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate testimony.

Bernstein writes in Newsweek that “it is impossible not to consider” the News of the World phone-hacking scandal “through the prism of Watergate.”

He adds:

“When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full.”

That story’s a lot messier than Bernstein lets on: The private entreaties to Watergate grand jurors in December 1972 angered the federal judge hearing the Watergate cases and nearly landed the reporters in jail.

As described in All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, none of the grand jurors was cooperative but the reporters’ overtures were reported to the federal prosecutors, who informed the chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, John J. Sirica.

The judge was livid.

According to All the President’s Men, Edward Bennett Williams, the Post’s top lawyer, went to lengths to persuade Sirica — known as “Maximum John” for the stern sentences he imposed — not to throw the book at the wayward reporters.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you fellas,” Williams was quoted as saying in the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Being sent to jail would have interrupted and may well have ended their reporting on Watergate. (The myths surrounding Bernstein and Woodward’s work are discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.)

It wasn’t as if Bernstein and Woodward and their editors at the Post were oblivious to the hazards of inviting grand jurors to violate their secrecy vows. They were well aware of the risks of what they described in All the President’s Men as “a seedy venture.”

The Post’s editors consulted on the scheme — among them Bradlee, Managing Editor Howard Simons, Metropolitan Editor Harry M. Rosenfeld — all entertained “private doubts” about approaching grand jurors.

The Post city editor, Barry Sussman, was described in All the President’s Men as fearing “that one of them, probably Bernstein, would push too hard and find a way to violate the law.

“Woodward wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself. Bernstein, who vaguely approved of selective civil disobedience, was not concerned about breaking the law in the abstract. It was a question of which law, and he believed that grand-jury proceedings should be inviolate.”

But they went ahead anyway, desperate for leads in the slowly unfolding scandal.

Their overtures to the grand jurors drew a tongue-lashing from Sirica in open court on December 19, 1972.

“I want it understood by the person who approached members of the grand jury that the court regards this matter as extremely serious” and “at least potentially” contempt of court, Sirica said.

The judge, though, did not mention the reporters by name, saying only that the entreaties to grand jurors had been made by “a news media representative.”

Reporters covering the hearing buzzed with speculation as to whom Sirica was referring.

Bernstein and Woodward deflected suggestions that they had made the improper overtures. “We … engaged in our own cover-up,” Woodward was quoted as saying in Alicia Shepard’s Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.

The reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, which came out in 1974 just as Watergate was nearing its climax, that in seeking out the grand jurors, they “had chosen expediency over principle and, caught in the act, their role had been covered up.”

To be sure, their dubious conduct was not in the same league as the rank illegality of News of the World’s phone-hacking.

But Bernstein was more than a little disingenuous in soft-pedaling how he and Woodward solicited information from Watergate grand jurors.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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Who, or what, brought down Nixon?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Who brought him down?

The easy, but wrong, answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that interpretation has become “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also a prominent media-driven myth–a well-known but dubious or improbable tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

What I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and intricate scandal.

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Britain’s Spectator magazine takes up the Watergate question in an article about fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that has swept up Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sunday News of the World.

To its credit, Spectator sidestepped the heroic-journalist myth in declaring:

“Everyone who remembers the Watergate scandal remembers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting. Brilliant though it was, the Nixon administration was destroyed not by the Washington Post, but by Sam Ervin’s Senate committee, which had the powers parliamentary select committees ought to have to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to talk or go to jail for contempt.”

While commendable in eschewing the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation, the Spectator commentary overstated the importance of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina and took testimony during the spring and summer of 1973.

Rather than destroying Nixon’s presidency, the select committee had the effect of training public attention on the crimes of Watergate and, in the testimony it elicited, offered a way to determine whether Nixon had a guilty role in the scandal.

The select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes, I note in Getting It Wrong, “proved crucial to the scandal’s outcome.”

They constituted Nixon’s “deepest secret,” Stanley Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, has written.

The revelation about their existence set off a year-long effort to force Nixon to turn over the tapes, as they promised to clear or implicate him in the scandal.

Nixon resisted surrendering the tapes until compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in July 1974.

The tapes revealed his guilty role in seeking to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate’s seminal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the offices of the Democratic national committee in Washington.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In the final analysis, then, who or what brought down Richard Nixon?

Certainly not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, either.

The best answer is that rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity 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,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “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,” making inevitable the early end of his presidency.

WJC

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