James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for July, 2011

Watergate’s Bernstein shaky on media history

Posted by James McPherson on July 17, 2011

  

The most recent issue of Newsweek has drawn attention mostly because of yet another overhyped article about Sarah Palin. In the article, Palin says that if she runs for the presidency, “I Can Win.”

Well, duh. One would think that every candidate who runs for president thinks she or he can win. What would you expect them to say, “Well, I expect to get my butt kicked, but I really dislike my family and so wanted to put them through the wringer”?

The question is why Newsweek feels obligated to keep doing cover stories on a failed vice-presidential candidate and half-term governor who hasn’t declared any intention of running for office again. Oh, yeah–it’s because those stories, about America’s political Lindsay Lohan, draw more readers than would more intellectual (and more useful) fare.

A prediction, for what it’s worth: I think Palin will follow the Hillary Clinton route and run for the Arizona Senate seat that Jon Kyl will vacate. No state outside of her (and my) birth state of Idaho is more suited for the inflammatory know-nothing rhetoric that a Palin candidacy is likely to bring, and she recently bought a house there. If she wins a Senate seat, she could then run for president in 2016 when a Republican probably will have a better chance of winning.

For me, the most interesting thing in this issue of Newsweek was a couple of quotes that demonstrated some historical ignorance–quote that came not from Sarah Palin, as might be expected, but from famous Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein and one of his sources.

In an article about the scandal swirling around media mogul Rupert Murdoch (a scandal that has now touched even Scotland  Yard), Bernstein writes, “[The New York Post’s] Page Six, emblematic in its carelessness about accuracy or truth or context–but oh-so-readable–became the model for the gossipization of an American Press previously resistent to even considering publishing its like.”

Really? Murdoch bought the Post in 1976, and one of the founders of the Page Six column was James Brady–who came to the Post from a supermarket tabloid, the National Star, which had been founded two years earlier to compete with the National Enquirer. The Enquirer, of course, had already been famous for that kind of sensationalism for decades.

OK, so maybe Bernstein meant the mainstream press, not supermarket tabloids. But if so, he’s still overlooking one of the most important (and infamous) periods in American media history, the Yellow Journalism period of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The next time Bernstein is tempted to tune into a showing of “All the President’s Men,” perhaps a viewing of “Citizen Kane” would be in order, instead.

The Yellow Journalism period also is ignored with a quote from an anonymous source. Part of that quote is pulled for display type (the fault of a historically challenged editor rather than of Bernstein, though he should have known better than to use the original quote). The display type reads, “Murdoch invented a newsroom culture where you do whatever it takes to get the story.”

Reinvented it, perhaps, though I’d question even that. But we should not have famous journalists–perhaps especially those who have contributed  significantly to media history–carelessly reinventing other parts of that history.

 

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