Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about misreported stories, the Killing Fields, and the press vs. secrets
May 3, 2010

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism | By W. Joseph Campbell | University of California Press | 284 pages, $60, $24.95 paper

As W. Joseph Campbell shows, there are many ways to misreport. Sometimes it means getting the story wrong in the first place, sometimes misremembering the story, sometimes inflating it later for self-aggrandizement. The author’s ten case studies include examples of each. He offers four instances where the original coverage was wrong: the dissemination of unchecked and false horror stories after Hurricane Katrina; the faddish coverage that produced a nonexistent epidemic of permanently injured “crack babies” in the late 1980s; the fabricated glorification of Private Jessica Lynch as the first heroine of the second Iraq war; and the creation in the 1960s of the bra-burning metaphor to characterize feminists (although, scrupulously, Campbell notes that just a single bra might have been burned, once).

The more complex analyses center on distorted or false history. Did William Randolph Hearst send the telegram to Frederic Remington in 1897 promising to provide a war? Did Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now broadcast in 1954 bring down Senator Joseph R. McCarthy? Did The New York Times kill a story about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961? Did Walter Cronkite’s critique of the Vietnam War after the 1968 Tet offensive lead LBJ to abandon the presidency? Did Woodward and Bernstein undo Richard Nixon? In each of these cases, the author debunks what is essentially historical hearsay. The value of these studies is less in the answers, which are telegraphed early on, than in the detailed and illuminating research Campbell has applied to each.

Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media and the Rule of Law | By Gabriel Schoenfeld | W. W. Norton & Company | 320 pages, $27.95

According to Gabriel Schoenfeld, this book arose from his anger when, in 2005, The New York Times disregarded a White House plea and published details of a secret (and arguably illegal) National Security Agency phone-tapping program. He believed, and still believes, that the paper should have been prosecuted for this alleged breach. Yet Schoenfeld, a public intellectual associated with the Hudson Institute, did not let his wrath stand in the way of writing a book that is mostly moderate in tone and often very informative.

From its beginnings, notes the author, the U.S. government has contended with unauthorized leaks, most of which did little lasting harm and the publication of which went unpunished. Even the Espionage Act of 1917, enacted shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, proved less than effective in punishing the press, partly because it required proof of ill intent. Nor did the Chicago Tribune’s disclosure early in World War II that the United States had broken Japanese codes lead to prosecution. But in 1950 Congress passed the obscure Comint (for “Communications Intelligence”) Act, which Schoenfeld sees as admirably suited to punish such transgressions as those of the Times.

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Of course, the Bush administration declined to use this handy tool, allowing the paper to get away unscathed. And Schoenfeld recognizes the potential drawbacks of such a prosecution, as symbolized by “the spectacle of FBI agents raiding the nation’s premier newspaper, hauling away computers and file cabinets, and frog-marching a shackled Bill Keller into court.” He concludes that the Bush administration was following a well-known maxim: “Do not pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel.”

Beyond the Killing Fields: War Writings | By Sydney Schanberg | Compiled and edited by Robert Miraldi | Potomac Books | 228 pages, $27.50

Just as the real-life Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were displaced to a degree by their film counterparts, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, in All the President’s Men, so the real Sydney Schanberg has been overshadowed by Sam Waterston’s depiction in The Killing Fields. This collection helps to bring the real Sydney Schanberg back to the fore. Its centerpiece is the 1980 article from The New York Times Magazine about Schanberg’s loss and recovery of his steadfast Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran, an account even more wrenching than the film version. But the book contains much more: stories and analyses from the decade when, as the author recalls, his life “turned into a war assignment” in Laos, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and, of course, Cambodia. He confesses that he still hears the siren call of war, and not only for the adrenaline rush it produces in the correspondent. Writes Schanberg: “The people should be told and shown—even if they wish to turn their eyes away—what is being waged in their name.”

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.