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American Journalism Review
Hoodwinked!  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1996


The media have failed to pierce campaign myths in election after election. Will the 1996 run for the White House be different?

By James McCartney
James McCartney is a former Washington correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.     

In every presidential election since Richard Nixon faced John F. Kennedy in 1960, the American press has fumbled the ball in some significant, often memorable way. Candidates have gotten away with outright lies, deliberate misrepresentations, phony assertions and, on occasion, ridiculous, unachievable proposals. In each instance the public and democracy have been poorly served.

Yet it is by no means certain that the media have learned obvious lessons. It is as though the press, collectively, has no institutional memory, plunging from one campaign to the next while ignoring the history of its own failures.

With the 1996 campaign under way, a reasonable question might well be: How will the media be hoodwinked this time? Will it fall for some last-minute "surprise"? Will someone find a new Willie Horton? Will a new and untried national savior appear on the scene to ignite media mania?

Consider the record:

* In 1960 John F. Kennedy asserted there was a "missile gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union, to the Soviet advantage. It was not true.

* In 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaigned as a peace candidate in Vietnam. He was secretly planning an escalation of the war.

* In 1972 Richard Nixon permitted his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, to announce that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. It was not.

* In 1980 Ronald Reagan promised to cut income taxes, substantially increase defense spending and balance the federal budget--all at the same time. It sounded impossible, and it was.

* In 1988 George Bush managed to make convicted murderer Willie Horton a household name in an effort to depict Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. It was a phony issue.

These cases are part of a roll call of failure on the part of the media. Time after time, presidential candidates have managed to mislead the American people, and get away with it.

These days the press is often accused of being overly negative and too aggressive, of damaging if not destroying the public's faith in government with its cynical, confrontational approach.

But when it comes to presidential campaigns, history suggests that is not the problem. It suggests instead that the press often does not probe hard enough, does not dig deep enough. It suggests that the press tends to accept all too readily the spoken word and the patently self-serving political declaration without critical examination. That principle has been illustrated many times over the last 36 years.

1960 John F. Kennedy's mythical "missile gap" was a case of calculated political manipulation of an easily wooed, transfixed press.

Kennedy was searching for a political weapon to offset the superior background in national security affairs of his opponent, Nixon.

It was a bogus issue, which Kennedy knew as early as September from private briefings by the outgoing administration. The media probably could have figured this out if they had made a serious effort.

Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20. Less than three weeks later, his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, admitted to reporters that the Pentagon had tentatively concluded that there was no missile gap.

During the campaign the media essentially accepted Kennedy's assertions without challenge. He said it. They reported it. Even the sainted Walter Lippmann, the most influential columnist of the time, appeared to accept the missile gap without question. "The military power of the United States is falling behind that of the Soviet Union: We are on the wrong side of a missile gap," Lippmann wrote.

Even after the election, when the truth began to emerge, Theodore White, famed chronicler of presidential campaigns, failed to perceive the significance of the issue, even though it had been a central part of Kennedy's campaign. White didn't even bother to list the missile gap in the index of his book, "The Making of the President, 1960."

It is difficult to believe that the press could not have done better. It is true that the Eisenhower administration's obsession with secrecy on nuclear issues was an obstacle, but top Pentagon officials knew Kennedy was off base. And an effort to obtain information from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee should have made it possible to present a more accurate picture.

1964 The media were equally ineffective in the face of Lyndon Johnson's deception about Vietnam in 1964, revealed in all its cynicism in the Pentagon Papers. Johnson was plotting an escalation of the war while campaigning as a man of peace.

Johnson apparently was considering a more aggressive war effort as early as Christmas of 1963. In Stanley Karnow's book, "Vietnam: A History," he is quoted telling the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a White House reception on Christmas Eve, "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war."

But Johnson, running against Republican hawk Barry Goldwater, repeatedly declared during the 1964 campaign that he opposed sending "American boys" to Vietnam. Two weeks before the election he said, "We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves."

The Pentagon Papers reveal, however, that a consensus to bomb North Vietnam was reached at a White House strategy meeting in early September of 1964, two months before the election. On September 9 Johnson secretly authorized U.S. retaliation against North Vietnam in the event of any "special" attacks against American units.

But the most dramatic example of Johnson's duplicity came on Election Day itself, November 3, 1964. A committee headed by William Bundy, assistant secretary of state for the Far East, formally recommended bombing the north. The peace candidate's bombing campaign began in February, and two months later Johnson authorized American ground troops.

"While the press corps in those years diligently reported what the government said about Vietnam..too few sought out opposing viewpoints and expertise until too late..," political writer Jules Witcover explained in a 1970 analysis of the behavior of the press. "There is strong evidence the reason is too many reporters sought the answers..from the same basic source--the government."

The fact is that the press was completely captivated by Johnson. It accepted at face value his disingenuous promises to keep "American boys" out of the war. But there was a solid basis for tough questions that never got asked.

In April 1964, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen publicly accused the president of hiding the fact that U.S. military forces were engaged in combat operations in Southeast Asia. In July, South Vietnamese Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky openly boasted of flying combat missions against the North. In August Goldwater, who had close ties to the military, was publicly demanding a "full, frank" disclosure of American policy in Vietnam. And the administration's high-pressure request for the famed Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August, authorizing whatever military action might be necessary in Vietnam, should have been a dead giveaway.

Furthermore, high administration officials who declined to be identified were discussing the possibilities of a wider war with at least some reporters. But none of these hints that something was going on were followed up aggressively.

James Reston of the New York Times, certainly one of the most respected journalists of the era, was deeply puzzled. On October 2 he wrote that "it is difficult to understand why prominent officials, a few weeks before a national election, should be talking so openly about expanding the war..almost lobbying for such a course of action..talking casually about how easy it could be to 'provoke an incident' in the Gulf of Tonkin."

It is obvious in retrospect that the press should have been reporting in hard news stories on page one what these unidentified high officials were saying in contrast to what the president was saying on the campaign trail.

But the major mistake of the press during the 1964 campaign was its failure to examine Lyndon Johnson's character. There was much in his personal history, available on the public record, to suggest that the president was capable of blatant deception. The record of his disputed election to the Senate in 1948, documenting how the election had been stolen, was available at the Supreme Court building, across the street from the Capitol, for any reporter who wanted to read it.

1968 The world knows well today that in 1968 there was no "New Nixon." The Watergate tapes tell it all. He was the same cynical, insecure, embittered man who sneered at the press in l962 after losing a race for the California governorship, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

What was new in 1968 was Harry Treleaven, a New York advertising guru, and Frank Shakespeare, an 18-year veteran of CBS.

Nixon's victory was a triumph of advertising-age merchandising, told best by Joe McGinniss in his classic, "The Selling of the President 1968." Treleaven and Shakespeare systematically repackaged the Nixon of 1962 and sold him, like so much soap, to the public and the press.

The key was total control. They kept Nixon away from the traveling press, presenting him instead in regionally televised "citizen panels" in which he was quizzed by Republican stalwarts firing carefully scripted questions. The stalwarts were instructed when to clap and when to laugh.

The traveling press was not permitted in the studios and was forced to watch on monitors from adjacent studios. As one of Nixon's men explained, "It is a TV show, and the press has no business on the set."

Image-making, of course, has long been an integral part of politics. But in 1968 Nixon set a new standard, and his approach was widely copied in subsequent years.

The press did not make a serious effort to penetrate the shield. It accepted the staged shows as part of the game, with print reporters docilely recording what they saw on the monitors. Little was written about the adaptation of Madison Avenue advertising techniques to presidential politics, which turned out to be the story of the campaign.

Essentially, the press bought into the notion that there was indeed a "New Nixon." The full story of the master media manipulation by Treleaven and Shakespeare didn't emerge until McGinniss' book was published, well after Nixon was ensconced in the White House.

1972 On October 27, just before Election Day 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger declared that peace was "at hand" in Vietnam.

It wasn't. The heaviest bombing of the war was soon to follow with the infamous "Christmas bombing" of North Vietnam.

(It has been reported that Nixon was enraged by Kissinger's statement, although he never rebuked him. Kissinger himself has said he believed the carnage was about to stop and was simply wrong.)

According to Walter Isaacson's biography of Kissinger, on October 25 the national security advisor called Max Frankel, then Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, and invited him to lunch at the fashionable Sans Souci near the White House. Frankel's front page story the following day quoted "American officials" as saying that a cease-fire could come very soon "barring a supreme act of folly in Saigon or Hanoi."

That night, as Frankel's story was being printed, Hanoi was publicly broadcasting details of the agreement--and how Saigon had scuttled it, Isaacson later wrote. The deal had already gone sour.

This development did not restrain Kissinger from declaring in a televised news conference in the majestic East Room of the White House that peace was imminent. Kissinger apparently had hoped that the announcement itself would force Saigon's hand. It didn't.

The stock market soared. "It has been a long time," James Reston wrote in the New York Times, "since Washington has heard such a candid and even brilliant explanation of an intricate political problem." Newsweek's cover featured an American GI with "Goodbye Vietnam" splashed across his helmet, and the magazine published an article on "How Kissinger Did It."

The following week Nixon trounced his hapless Democratic opponent, Sen. George McGovern.

What could the press have done? It certainly couldn't ignore the secretary of state's bombshell. But it might have pointed out that last-minute political surprises often turn out to be false. More significantly, it might have stressed more prominently that neither the North nor South Vietnamese would confirm Kissinger's announcement.

Instead, the media--and the voters--were had.

1976 Success in politics often stems from the manufacturing of myths. Jimmy Carter understood that principle well.

His reigning genius was Atlanta advertising executive Gerald Rafshoon. In early 1976, with Gerald Ford in the White House following Nixon's resignation, Carter and Rafshoon perceived that the basic question on the minds of millions of troubled Americans was simple: Could they trust their government?

Carter's campaign featured two themes: "I'm an ordinary, decent American, a peanut farmer from Georgia who wants to do good," and "I will never lie to you."

During the Democratic primaries Rafshoon produced a memorable television spot showing Carter in denim work clothes and boots, walking slowly across a neatly plowed field, sifting the soil through his fingers. A common man. A man of the earth.

Rafshoon recounted later that he had had little contact with Carter. The two had one meeting in November 1975, he told authors Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates, in which they went over a list of possible topics for commercials. Then, Rafshoon said, he worked on his own for the next six months. Carter had told him, "I don't have to look. You make sure they're good."

But those carefully crafted TV images did not reflect the real Jimmy Carter, according to Phil Gailey, who covered Carter for the Atlanta Constitution when he was governor of Georgia.

Gailey, now editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg Times, was astonished that the public and the national media were buying the Rafshoon image. Carter had demonstrated again and again as governor that he was rigid, self-righteous and moralistic, Gailey told colleagues in the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, where he worked at the time. As it became clear that Carter would be the Democratic presidential nominee, Gailey made a prediction. "When the public sees the real Jimmy Carter after he's been in office for a while," Gailey said, "they'll turn against him." His prediction proved prescient. By the time Carter ran for reelection in 1980, his charm had long since worn thin, and he became an easy target for Ronald Reagan.

A fitting description of the press coverage of Carter's 1976 campaign came from CBS' Lesley Stahl at a post-election review with top network brass. "I think the truth is that the candidates have learned to manipulate us almost 99-and-a-half percent," she said.

Martin Schram, author of "The Great American Video Game: Presidential Politics in the Television Age," obtained a transcript of the meeting in which there was a consensus that Stahl was essentially right. Schram wrote, "In 1976, the CBS summiteers discussed whether they had been had by the candidates and their strategists, whether they had paid too much attention to visuals and cosmetics, too little attention to issues and substance. There were grand resolves pronounced, but the campaign coverage of 1980 saw only modest changes made."

What could the press have done differently? For starters, it could have looked far more closely at Carter's record as Georgia's governor. And it could have spotlighted the paucity of substance in his campaign.

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