W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Scandal’

Newspaper rant deplores ‘debasement of reality’ but invokes prominent media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2019 at 8:54 am

The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic the other day in deploring “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” declaring that “lies” have become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was a long-form screed alright, which appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It was not unlike many other rants written during the war between the press and President Donald Trump.

Journos didn’t do it

What most interested Media Myth Alert was not so much the hyperventilating as the credulous reference to the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — that reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past,” the Seattle Times article asserted, adding:

“But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

Uh-huh: “forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion, of course, is to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

But forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

No, the forces essential to rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance: Indeed, they were marginal to Watergate’s outcome.

And this by no means is a new interpretation.

The first edition of Getting It Wrong came out in 2010.

Five years before that, the Washington Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, 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.”

And in 1974, Edward Jay Epstein had cast a highly skeptical look at the notion the Washington Post was central to Watergate’s unraveling.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, the best-selling book about their Watergate reporting, Epstein wrote:

“The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s autobiographical account of how they ‘revealed’ the Watergate scandals. …  In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the ‘behind-the-scenes’ investigations which actually ‘smashed the Watergate scandal wide open’ — namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees.”

So why does the hero-journalist myth persist? Why is it so often invoked, and credulously so, despite having been repeatedly debunked over the years?

It lives on for several reasons, including the need to support claims that the news media are decisive actors in American culture and political life.

But as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

What’s more, I noted, media myths tend to be “self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2018

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Photographs, Reviews, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 27, 2018 at 10:40 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2018 to the not-infrequent appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a look back at the year’s five top posts at Media Myth Alert which, in late October 2019, will mark its 10th anniversary:

WaPo’s hagiographic treatment of the ‘Cronkite Moment’ (posted May 27): The year brought more than a few credulous references to the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” which is derived from Walter Cronkite’s peroration in a special report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War. Cronkite, the CBS News anchorman, said the U.S. war effort was stalemated and suggested negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Cronkite in Vietnam

In a page-long look back at the “Cronkite Moment,” the Washington Post in late May praised the anchorman’s “daring, historic, precedent-busting words about Vietnam” and asserted that President Lyndon B. Johnson “was deflated by Cronkite’s report, saying, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That purported quotation, I noted in discussing the Post’s hagiographic retrospective, “is the centerpiece of one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths, rivaling that of Watergate and the notion that the Post’s reporting uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon’s resignation.”

We know that Johnson didn’t see Cronkite’s hour-long report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president at the time was at a black-tie birthday party in Austin, Texas. He was not in front of a television set, and there is no sure evidence whether, or when, Johnson may have watched the program at some later date on videotape.

Moreover, Johnson effectively shrugged off Cronkite’s remarks (if he even heard of them). In a series of public events in the first three weeks of March 1968, the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy and endeavored to rally popular support for the war.

So even if he did see Cronkite’s report on videotape, Johnson gave no indication of having been moved by the anchorman’s “stalemate” message — which was a rather tepid assessment for the time. Just 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.”

The “bitter taste of defeat”: No dithering there about “stalemate.”

A media myth convergence and the ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph (posted May 20): Sometimes, media myths converge.

Sometimes a number of media outlets, separately and independently, invoke elements of the same media-driven myth, at roughly the same time.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It’s an occurrence that confirms the wide reach of prominent media myths and signals their versatile application.

The famous “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in June 1972 by a photographer for the Associated Press, was the  subject of a myth convergence in May: Within a few days, the National newspaper in Scotland, the online economic news site Quartz, the left-wing news site Truthdig, and the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa all invoked aspects of the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph; the image shows a cluster of children, screaming as they fled an errant napalm attack on their village in what then was South Vietnam.

As I discussed in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the myths surrounding the famous photograph are tenacious and include the erroneous notions that the image was so powerful that it swung American public opinion against the war in Vietnam, that it hastened an end to the conflict, and that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes.

The National claimed that the photograph “dramatically changed public attitude towards the Vietnam War.” Quartz made a somewhat similar claim, saying the image “helped galvanize the opposition to the Vietnam War, both within and outside” the United States. Truthdig was more vague, saying the “Napalm Girl” photograph “helped shift the understanding of the American role in Vietnam.” Sunday Times invoked the pernicious claim that the photograph depicted results of a “US napalm strike.”

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had swung against the war long before the photograph was taken in 1972. And the claim of U.S. culpability in the napalm attack has been invoked so often and blithely as to become insidious. But it was no “US napalm strike.” The napalm was dropped by a South Vietnamese warplane, as news reports at the time made quite clear.

The notion of U.S. culpability in the napalm drop, I wrote in another post in 2018, has “served to illustrate broader and deleterious consequences of America’s intervention in Vietnam.”

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie (posted January 2): Steven Spielberg’s The Post featured the talents of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, was cheered by many critics, but won no major cinematic awards.

That may have been due to its incongruous story line: The movie centered around the disclosures in 1971 about the U.S. government’s classified history of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers. But the focus was not on the newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for first reporting about the secret archive. The movie instead was about the newspaper that didn’t break the story, the newspaper that followed the disclosures of the New York Times.

The Post was a fawning look at the Washington Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor. The movie suggested they risked jail time for publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers after the Times had been temporarily blocked from continuing its disclosures.

The movie makes “a heroic statement,” I noted in writing about The Post, “but the emphasis is misplaced.

“To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect.”

It was the Times, after all, that took greatest risks in reporting on the Pentagon Papers; the prospect of Graham and Bradlee’s going to jail for following up on the Timesdisclosures was remote at best.

Not only was The Post’s story line a hard sell, the acting wasn’t stellar. Hanks was mediocre in playing a rumpled Bradlee; the character spoke in a strange and distracting accent that seemed vaguely Southern.

Streep’s portrayal of Graham was cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham was depicted as weak, confused, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being publisher. But then abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham found backbone and gave the order to publish.

It was all quite melodramatic, and not very convincing.

Journalism review in need of journalism history lesson (posted November 16): Columbia Journalism Review seeks to present itself as “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

It didn’t demonstrate much intellectual leadership in publishing an essay that invoked the hoary myth of Edward R. Murrow’s having “exposed” the lies and exaggerations of the red-baiting senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, in a half-hour television program in March 1954.

Red-baiting senator

As I pointed out in addressing the CJR essay, Murrow, the legendary CBS News journalist, “took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.”

Those other journalists included the muckraking syndicated columnist, Drew Pearson, who challenged McCarthy beginning in February 1950, or more than four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign.

McCarthy became so perturbed by Pearson’s persistent questioning and probing that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. (Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.)

McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate soon after the confrontation to condemn Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

So by the time Murrow devoted his “See It Now” program to McCarthy, the senator’s claims about communists having infiltrated the federal government were well-known, as were his bullying tactics. His popularity was on the skids by then, too.

Airing a critical report about McCarthy in March 1954 was more belated than courageous.

Columbia Journalism Review touted Murrow’s mythical role on other occasions — notably in an essay in July 2016 that invoked the broadcaster’s program on McCarthy as a precedent for journalists seeking to suspend professional detachment in reporting on Donald Trump and his campaign for president.

The fading of a media myth? Not so fast (posted October 30): The run-up to Halloween this year was marked by noticeably few media references to mass panic and hysteria that supposedly swept the United States during and right after the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel that told of a deadly invasion of Earth by Mars.

It’s become pretty clear that Americans weren’t pitched into panic by the hour-long program that aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, some listeners may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program as clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the myth of radio-induced panic usually emerges predictably in the run-up to Halloween.

Except for this year, when credulous media references to the “panic broadcast” seemed fewer, and seemed overwhelmed by searching commentary that rejected the notion the show created panic and hysteria. All of which prompted a Media Myth Alert post that asked, optimistically:

“Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?”

Such optimism was dashed not long after the anniversary when the New York Times published a commentary asserting that the “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

Clearly, the media myth of the “panic broadcast” hadn’t been interred.

Interestingly, the Times’ reference to “widespread panic” hinted at confusion within the newspaper’s op-ed section: At the anniversary of the broadcast, the Times had posted an online commentary that declared the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

In any event, the dashed optimism about the “panic broadcast” offered fresh confirmation that no media myth ever completely dies away.

Myths after all tend to be too delicious to be completely discredited.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2018:

 

Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects of Watergate:

“‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.'”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming inaccurately that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

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‘Chappaquiddick,’ the movie: Muddled character study

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Reviews, Scandal, Watergate myth on April 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

Chappaquiddick, the docudrama revisiting Senator Ted Kennedy’s misconduct following a late-night automobile accident in July 1969 that killed his 28-year-old female passenger, was released over the weekend to larger-than-expected audiences and not-bad reviews.

The film’s release also was accompanied by a bit of carping from a Kennedy apologist who characterized Chappaquiddick as a distortion, as bad history.

Such complaints are fair enough, when accurate. Plenty of American history has been distorted by the cinema.

The movie version of All the President’s Men, for example, fueled the media myth that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s The Post mythologized the presumed courage of the publisher of the newspaper — the Washington Postthat trailed the New York Times in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the government’s classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for its reporting on the case.

The carping about Chappaquiddick came in a prickly commentary in the Times that claimed the movie “distorts a tragedy” in revisiting Kennedy’s actions leading to the watery death of Mary Jo Kopechne — one of the late Robert Kennedy’s female campaign staffers, six of whom Ted Kennedy and friends invited to party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July 1969.

Kennedy, who was married, and Kopechne, who was not, left the party together, with the senator behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan.

According to Kennedy’s accounts, he made a wrong turn, drove the sedan down an unpaved road and off a wooden bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick. The car flipped before landing in the water. Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) escaped the sunken Oldsmobile and made it back to his hotel room in Edgartown, across a ferry channel from Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) died alone inside the car.

The incident — and the success of Kennedy and his minions in thwarting thorough investigations of his conduct — are at the dramatic heart of Chappaquiddick.

If anything, though, the movie shows too little of the fecklessness of local authorities whose deference allowed Kennedy to escape with a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of a deadly accident. Power enabled by privilege was Chappaquiddick’s amoral takeaway.

Chappaquiddick would have been a powerful film had it presented a withering, focused look at the privilege and power that got the senator off the hook and safely away from criminal jeopardy.

The Times commentary chafed at the movie’s treatment of Kennedy, whom Massachusetts voters returned to the U.S. Senate seven times after the Chappaquiddick scandal.

“Contrary to the film’s implications,” says the commentary, written by Neil Gabler, “Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption,” adds Gabler, who is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy.  Chappaquiddick, he writes, “is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”

How hagiographic. How beside the point.

Chappaquiddick could have been a withering and unsparing examination of a scion of privilege, a national figure who had a long history of drinking to excess and of treating women badly, and who by his own admission acted reprehensibly in the hours after driving the Oldsmobile off the bridge.

As it is, the film is a somewhat muddled character study, in part because of gaps in the narrative — gaps that persist because the senator was never compelled to explain fully what happened on that summer’s night 49 years ago.

Despite it shortcomings and occasional indulgence in dramatic license, the movie presents the incontrovertible main elements of the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, namely that:

  • Kennedy left the party with a young woman not his wife. Kennedy later said he was driving her to the ferry that would take her to Edgartown and her hotel. But Kopechne left behind at the party her purse and motel room key.
  • Kennedy did not immediately call for help from police or rescue workers after escaping the Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond.
  • Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours — until Kopechne’s lifeless body had been found in the submerged sedan.
  • Kennedy’s loyalists sought to pitch the episode as another tragedy for Kennedy’s family.
  • Kennedy was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, not the far more serious charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
  • Kennedy’s ambitions to become president were derailed by Kopechne’s death; he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

As Leo DaMore wrote in Senatorial Privilege, an incisive and detailed study of Chappaquiddick, “In his pursuit of the presidential nomination, Kennedy had run against Chappaquiddick. And Chappaquiddick had won.”

So why is a movie about the Chappaquiddick scandal worth making nowadays? Principally because Chappaquiddick, and Kennedy’s misconduct, have receded in popular consciousness. Kennedy, who late in his life was celebrated fulsomely as a “lion of the Senate,” lived until 2009, 40 years after Kopechne’s death.

A more honorable man than he would have resigned in July 1969 and left public life.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2017

In 'Napalm girl', Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2017 to the appearance of a number of well-known media-driven myths, which are prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a rundown of the five top posts of the year at Media Myth Alert, which was established at the end of October 2009, a few months before publication of the first edition of Getting It Wrong. An expanded second edition of the mythbusting book came out in late 2016.

Vox offers up myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ in essay about ‘fake news’ (posted July 6): “Fake news” was much in the media in 2017, and in addressing the phenomenon, the online site Vox invoked one of the media myths associated with the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of June 1972.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Vox  asserted that the image showed “a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

It was not a U.S. bombing. As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports made quite clear at the time.

For example, a veteran British journalist, Christopher Wain, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned the girl and others is false, but enduring.

And Vox has not corrected its error.

The photographer who took the “Napalm Girl” image, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, retired from the news agency at the end of March 2017.

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy (posted February 23): We are certain to hear fairly often about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in 2018, especially around the 50th anniversary in February of the on-air editorializing by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment is said to have been so powerful and shocking that it came as an epiphany for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was in tatters.

It’s a compelling story of media influence. But it’s hardly what happened.

Not only did Johnson not see Cronkite’s special report when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks afterward, mounting an aggressive and outspoken defense of his policy while making clear he had not taken the Cronkite’s message to heart — if he was aware of it at all.

Just three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

In mid-March 1968, Johnson told a meeting of business leaders in Washington: “We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

A few days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So at a time when Cronkite’s view about Vietnam should have been most potent and influential, Johnson remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war. On several occasions, the president effectively brushed aside Cronkite’s assessment and encouraged popular support for the war effort.

Johnson’s assertiveness at that time is little remembered, while the “Cronkite Moment” remains one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media myths.

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews (posted October 14): Long before its release in late September 2017, Peter Landesman’s biopic of Watergate’s mythical and most famous secret source, W. Mark Felt, was ballyhooed in the Hollywood press as a “spy thriller.”

The movie was grandiose in its title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But its script was a tedious mess that offered no coherent insight into Watergate or what really toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Felt, who was played by Liam Neeson, was a top official at the FBI who in 1972 and 1973 conferred periodically with Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal. In All the President’s Men, a book about their Watergate reporting for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to Felt as “Deep Throat.”

Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward took place in a parking garage in suburban Virginia and became the stuff of legend — not to mention media myth.

About the time he was conferring with Woodward, Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins — known at the FBI as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of fugitives of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for approving illegal entries and searches. He was tried with an FBI colleague; both were convicted and ordered to pay fines. They were pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

A far better biopic about Felt could have been developed around his criminal misconduct in investigating the Weather Underground. Such a movie could have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt wielded for a time at the FBI. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding cinematic treatment that was rewarded with no better than modest receipts at the box office.

WaPo’s media writer embraces Watergate myths (posted October 7): The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years — until Felt and his family revealed in 2005 that he had been the secret source. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, took the occasion to offer an important reminder about Watergate and the forces that had ended Nixon’s presidency.

Getler wrote in a column in June 2005 that “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

In October 2017, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, revisited the lessons of Watergate in an essay in Columbia Journalism Review — and embraced the trope that the Post and Woodward and Bernstein were central to bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

In her essay, Sullivan declared, without documentation, that Woodward and Bernstein had “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.’”

Woodward and Bernstein most certainly did not uncover Nixon’s obstruction. That was revealed in 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president can be heard approving a scheme to divert the FBI’s investigation into the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — the signal crime of Watergate.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account that the Columbia Journalism Review published in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

Deep in that article was a passage noting that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up: “It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew.

We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was hardly decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

And Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review remain uncorrected.

Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam (posted November 14): About two weeks before Minnesota Public Radio dismissed him for inappropriate workplace behavior, storyteller Garrison Keillor wrote an essay in which he imagined paying a return visit to New York City of 1961.

The thought was “unbearable,” he wrote, because “I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Were he somehow to make a return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Certainly not as a campaign pledge for the presidency in 1968 when, as a hoary media myth has it, Nixon cynically proclaimed having a “secret plan” to end the war.

But in fact, Nixon pointedly disavowed such a claim.

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 also was 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 may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But it was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year, and that is clear in reviewing search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search period was January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, and search terms were “Nixon” and “secret plan.” No articles were returned in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Had Nixon touted a “secret plan” during his campaign, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Keillor’s odd musings about returning to the ’60s were not the first time he’s indulged in media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor asserted that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph 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 Remington-Hearst anecdote, featuring Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war,” is one of the best-known in American journalism. But it is apocryphal, for reasons addressed in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews

In Cinematic treatments, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Mark Felt is a movie worse than its many negative reviews.

It’s a tedious biopic about Watergate’s most famous anonymous source that fails to offer anything close to a coherent interpretation of America’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

The subtitle asserts that Felt — celebrated as Bob Woodward‘s highly placed “Deep Throat” source during Watergate — was the “man who brought down the White House.” But that exceedingly dubious claim is not  much addressed — let alone supported — in this headache-inducing mess of a movie.

No one who sits through Mark Felt will come away with a cogent understanding about Watergate and what really brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

And that perhaps is its most acute failing.

The movie offers a badly mashed-up timeline of Watergate; suggests that the Nixon White House coverup of the scandal nearly succeeded when it was amateurish and wobbly, and provides no sense at all about the array of forces that closed in on Nixon. The movie is about a career G-man (played grimly by Liam Neeson) who leaked to the press, ostensibly to protect his beloved FBI from Nixon and his skulking, disreputable top aides.

Woodward’s character, played by Julian Morris, is amusingly callow and in a couple of brief appearances comes across as more stenographer than searching journalist. Mark Felt grants considerably more face time to Sandy Smith of Time magazine’s Washington bureau, a veteran journalist to whom Felt also leaked.

But as the credits roll, it’s not hard to think that director Peter Landesman missed an opportunity to shoot a far better movie about Felt.

Landesman’s portrayal notwithstanding, Felt was no heroic whistleblower. He was no noble character; the far better movie would have depicted Felt more accurately as a cunning G-man not above breaking the law.

The far better movie would have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt for a short time wielded at the FBI.

The far better movie would have been developed around Felt’s criminal misconduct as the agency’s acting associate director, authorizing illegal breakins — known as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of Weather Underground fugitives.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for illegal entries and searches in New York City and Union City, N.J. Indicted with him for conspiring to violate civil rights of American citizens were former FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray and Edward S. Miller, former head of the agency’s counterintelligence unit.

Felt and Miller were convicted, ordered to pay fines, but pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Charges against Gray were dropped.

Felt died in 2008, a few years after outing himself as Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source during Watergate.

The “black bag jobs” were conducted in late 1972 and early 1973, roughly the time Felt was speaking with Woodward of the Washington Post about Watergate. Felt and Miller later said the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

Landesman’s Felt doesn’t ignore the FBI’s illegal activities, but seems to excuse them because the Weather Underground’s bombings were increasingly worrisome. The radical group detonated timebombs in washrooms at the Capitol in March 1971, the Pentagon in May 1972, and State Department in January 1975.

A parallel track of the far better movie would have explored but censured the Weather Underground, a violent, far-left terrorist group led by the likes of Bernadine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers. They escaped  federal prosecution for their most serious crimes because crucial evidence against them had been gathered through illegal telephone surveillance.

Dohrn and Ayers became professors, he at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she at Northwestern University Law School. They were early supporters of Barack Obama as he began his climb from Chicago to the presidency. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from Ayers, calling him “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”

The far better movie also would have zeroed in on Felt’s efforts to undermine Gray during the so-called FBI war of succession following J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972.

By leaking to Woodward and Sandy Smith, Felt sought to discredit Gray and thus enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, an interpretation Max Holland persuasively presented in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

Felt lost out and retired in 1973, the year before Nixon resigned.

A far better movie could have been made. The material was there. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding and confusing cinematic treatment that’s been aptly rewarded with modest box office receipts.

WJC

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WaPo media writer embraces Woodward-Bernstein Watergate myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 7, 2017 at 7:58 am

A dozen years ago, just after Watergate’s famous anonymous source, “Deep Throat,” had outed himself, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, offered a timeless reminder about Watergate and the forces that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

“Ultimately,” Getler wrote in his column, “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

Now, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, has returned to the lessons of Watergate and in doing so embraced the heroic-journalist trope that the Post and its then-young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were crucial to bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Writing in the latest number of Columbia Journalism Review, Sullivan asserts that Woodward and Bernstein  “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.'”

There’s a lot of myth in those unsourced claims.

Let’s unpack them.

First, it’s hard to credit Woodward and Bernstein with having “uncovered” the crimes of Watergate. The scandal’s seminal crime — the thwarted break-in at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in mid-June 1972 — was at first a police beat story.

The Post and other news organizations reported on the foiled break-in the day after it happened. The Post’s article carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis; Woodward and Bernstein were listed among the story’s contributors.

The decisive crime of Watergate, the one that brought Nixon’s downfall, was his obstructing justice in attempting to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

Nixon’s obstruction most certainly was not “uncovered” by Woodward and Bernstein. It was disclosed not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president is heard approving the diversion scheme.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That much was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account published, yes, in the Columbia Journalism Review in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

The journalism review lauded Woodward, Bernstein, and their editors at the Post in an article titled, “The Washington ‘Post’ and Watergate: How two Davids slew Goliath.” The subtitle referring to Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” was an early expression of the heroic-journalist interpretation that has long since became the dominant narrative of Watergate.

Deep in the article was a passage saying that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up:

“It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

The article also pointed out, correctly:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate] by any means.”

That observation was effectively confirmed while the issue of Columbia Journalism Review was in circulation: In mid-July 1973, a former White House aide, Alexander Butterfield, told the Senate select committee investigating Watergate that Nixon secretly taped his Oval Office conversations, starting in 1971.

It was an explosive disclosure, a pivotal development — and a story that Woodward and Bernstein did not break.

So can it be said their Watergate stories, which won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973, also “helped to bring down a president,” as Sullivan claims? Maybe marginally, very marginally. At best.

What ended Nixon’s presidency was clear evidence that he had approved the plan, brought to him in June 1972 by his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, to divert the FBI investigation. And that evidence emerged from the White House tapes, not from pages of the Washington Post.

Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review represent something of a break with views of the Post‘s Watergate principals, who insisted over the years that the newspaper did not take down Nixon.

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.”

The Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, spoke similarly about the newspaper’s role in Watergate, insisting that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (He was referring to the White House tapes that revealed Nixon’s guilty conduct.)

And Woodward said in an interview in 2004 with the now-defunct American Journalism Review:

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

Graham, Bradley, and Woodward in his earthy way all were correct.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “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.”

And against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigators, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance.

It surely is not excessive, in discussing the heroic-journalist myth, to include a reminder of the ethical lapses Woodward and Bernstein committed in pursuing the Watergate story. These lapses are typically forgotten these days, even though some of them were acknowledged in All the President’s Men, the book about their Watergate reporting.

Woodward and Bernstein recounted in the book their failed attempts to entice federal grand jurors to violate oaths of secrecy and discuss testimony the grand jurors had heard about Watergate.  The reporters conceded these efforts were “a seedy venture” that nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including Bradlee.

According to  All the President’s Men, 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.” Such qualms notwithstanding, they went ahead with what they described as a “clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury.”

The overtures to grand jurors to violate secrecy commitments were soon reported to federal prosecutors who in turn informed John Sirica, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you,” the Post’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, told the reporters, according to All the President’s Men. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Bernstein also acknowledged in All the President’s Men that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records. It was, as media critic Jack Shafer once wrote, a matter of Bernstein’s having knowingly crossed an ethical line.

And in an interview with CBS News in 2004, Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged having ratted out an FBI source to his superior.

“So you deliberately blew a source,” said David Martin, the CBS interviewer. “What’s the ethics of that?”

“Probably not terribly good,” Bernstein replied.

WJC

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CNN commentary incorporates a rare media-myth twofer

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes on July 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm

In an essay that mocks “conservative media” for clinging to an “‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative,” a high-profile historian writing for CNN completed the unusual feat of working two prominent media myths into a single commentary.

The essay, posted yesterday, speculated that recent criticism by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Ross Douthat, both of whom are syndicated columnists, may signal significant erosion in Trump’s support among conservatives in the face of suspicions his presidential campaign last year improperly colluded with Russia’s government.

Maybe. But one can argue whether those columnists project much agenda-setting authority. Especially Krauthammer, whose wariness of Trump has long been evident.

In any case, what particularly interests Media Myth Alert is the essay-writer’s invoking persistent myths about Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in 1968 that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and about Edward R. Murrow’s televised report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1954.

The writer, Julian Zelizer, set up references to those myths by writing:

“Historically, significant shifts among journalists in how they cover and analyze a story can have major political effects. The media has the power to sway public opinion.”

Perhaps on occasion.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), media power “tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.” Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.” (And I note that economist Robert Samuelson has offered similar observations.)

Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, repeats the hoary claim that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, delivered at the close of an hour-long report about Vietnam, had a sudden and visceral influence on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Zelizer writes:

LBJ wasn’t watching Cronkite

“Watching on one of his television sets in the Oval Office, Johnson told his aides, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

We know that Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired on February 27, 1968, and there’s no sure evidence when or if he saw the program later on videotape. (The power of this anecdote, I write in Getting It Wrong, “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect [Cronkite’s assessment] supposedly had on the president: such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson seen the program on videotape at some later date.”)

Johnson was neither in front of television sets that night, nor was he at the Oval Office. He was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for one of his long-time allies, Governor John Connally Jr.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment — a characterization hardly novel or unprecedented in early 1968 — Johnson was offering light-hearted banter about Connally, saying:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

The president left Austin shortly afterward and later that night boarded Air Force One to return to Washington.

Zelizer’s commentary invokes the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, and says the program “exposed the contradictions and lies of rabid anti-Communist crusader Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Exposed?

Not quite.

“It wasn’t as if Americans in early 1954 were hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding that by March 1954, McCarthy and his red-baiting tactics “were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread. …

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists — including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson — had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Pearson was an energetic muckraker who openly challenged McCarthy beginning in 1950, shortly after the senator’s speech in West Virginia in which he claimed more than 200 communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department.

The columnist pointedly dismissed the allegations, writing that they seemed derived from an outdated and discredited list that Congress had examined three years before. Pearson also noted that he had covered the State Department for about 20 years, and during that time he had been “the career boys’ severest critic. However, knowing something about State Department personnel, it is my opinion that Senator McCarthy is way off base.”

Pearson pursued his critical reporting about McCarthy, so angering the senator that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950 following a dinner-dance at the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington. Not long after that, McCarthy took to the Senate floor to assail Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

Zelizer’s commentary makes no mention of Pearson and his work to expose McCarthy’s “contradictions and lies” but claims “Murrow’s broadcast was an important moment in Sen. McCarthy’s downfall.”

More accurately, it was very belated in the media’s exposés of McCarthy — as Murrow’s friend and colleague, the CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, pointed out years later.

The See It Now program on McCarthy, Sevareid noted, “came very late in the day. 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.”

Also of note is that Murrow’s producer and collaborator, Fred Friendly, pointed to another factor in ending McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch hunt — the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in spring of 1954. The hearings centered around allegations that McCarthy’s key associate, Roy Cohn, pressured the Army to grant special treatment to G. David Schine, a former McCarthy aide.

“What made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy, Friendly wrote in his 1967 memoir, “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings. People saw the evil right there on the tube. ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy.” (Emphasis added.)

Several weeks after the See It Now program on McCarthy, the New York Post’s television critic, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow was feeling “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.”

Deep in his essay, Zelizer acknowledges that it is “much too early to tell” whether anti-Trump commentary by some conservative pundits “will turn into something bigger and more sustained, or if the majority of the coverage on these [conservative] outlets remains pro-Trump.” He takes a swipe at those news outlets, citing a New York Times commentary in stating that “most of the conservative media still clings to an ‘alternative reality’ that fits President Trump’s own narrative.”

“Alternative reality”? What are media myths if not expressions of “alternative reality”?

WJC

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WaPo’s ‘myths about Watergate’ article ignores the scandal’s best-known mythical narrative

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

The Washington Post’s commentary section yesterday presented a rundown about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate.

Trouble is, the article unaccountably ignored the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Instead, the article addressed hackneyed claims such as “Watergate was politics as usual; Nixon just got caught” or obscure arguments such as “Nixon could have quieted the scandal by firing employees.” The sort of stuff few people find especially compelling.

Washington Post illustration

What many people do embrace is a claim often repeated in the news media in America and abroad.

And that is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, the mythical go-to narrative that the Post and its intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, unearthed the incriminating evidence that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

It’s a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively obscure.

It’s also a narrative rejected by those who ran the Post as the scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher at the time, insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and compelled the testimony and uncovered the evidence that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Against that tableau, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

The “myths of Watergate” article published yesterday made its nearest approach to the heroic-journalist narrative in addressing the notion that Woodward’s high-level secret source, code-named “Deep Throat,” was “pivotal to Nixon’s downfall.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt who, for a time, had been second in command at the FBI.

Felt conferred with Woodward periodically in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Washington suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. Typically, “Deep Throat” passed on to Woodward, or confirmed for him, piecemeal evidence about the scandal as it unfolded. At least that’s the version Woodward offered in The Secret Man, his book about Felt.

A far more prominent Watergate myth about “Deep Throat” is that he advised Woodward to “follow the money” in unlocking the intricacies of Watergate.

Follow the money” may be the single best-known quotation associated with Watergate (rivaled, perhaps, by Nixon’s statement in November 1973 that he was “not a crook”).

“Follow the money” was born of dramatic license, a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting.

“Follow the money” was memorably uttered by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie was outstanding in playing a conflicted, twitchy, and tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such assurance and confidence that it seemed to offer a roadmap to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

But even if Woodward had been counseled in real life to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office was not the mishandling of funds raised for his presidential reelection campaign but evidence of his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

That evidence was contained in one of the many audiotapes Nixon secretly made of his conversations at the White House from 1971 to 1973. The existence of the tapes was disclosed not by Woodward and Bernstein but by a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, in testimony before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Twelve months later, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tell-tale “Smoking Gun” tape to the Watergate special prosecutor, precipitating the president’s resignation.

WJC

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The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate and its applications

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 28, 2017 at 3:26 pm

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — pops up often, and in the service of any number of objectives.

Nixon got Nixon

It is a tale of supposed high accomplishment inspiring to journalists, especially so at a time of sustained retrenchment in their field.

It’s a trope with the intoxicating effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in U.S. history.

And it’s a way of paying obsequious tribute to the Washington Post, much as Sky News in Britain did not long ago.

“The Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers,” a fawning essay at the Sky’s online site declared, adding:

“Thanks to its investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it can make the unique claim of having brought down an American president — the corrupt Richard Nixon.”

It’s not too difficult to understand why such an extravagant claim circulates so widely.

After all, it is tidy, handy if  terribly misleading shorthand about the sprawling Watergate scandal of 1972-74: It sweeps away complexities of Watergate, rendering the scandal and its thicket of lies and criminality rather easy to grasp. After all, as I noted in the recently published, expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate scandal “has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

The heroic-journalist myth has become a reductive substitute.

The heroic-journalist interpretation also is a way of saluting Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s. Both, in fact, will highlight this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where they are to hand out awards and offer remarks about the importance of investigative reporting. (Not surprisingly, their pending joint appearance has stirred fresh retelling of the heroic-journalist myth. The Washington Examiner said the other day, for instance, that Woodward and Bernstein’s “coverage of the Watergate break-in led eventually to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation.”)

In their younger days, Woodward and Bernstein sneered at the correspondents’ association dinner, describing it in All the President’s Men, their 1974 book about Watergate, as “a formal, overdone, alcohol-saturated event, attended by all those with power — or pretensions to power — in the media and government.” Woodward and Bernstein went anyway, in 1973, to collect a couple of prizes.

So over-the-top is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate that not even principals at the Post when the scandal played out — notably the publisher, Katharine Graham, and her top editor, Ben Bradlee — embraced the notion.

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Also that year, Bradlee said on the Sunday talk show “Meet the Press” that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

He was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to divert the FBI investigation into the botched burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972. The breakin touched off the scandal.

And in earthier terms, Woodward concurred, telling an interviewer in 2006:

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

Quite.

WJC

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