MONDAY, JUNE 6, 2022
For today, Muskie (still) wept: Tomorrow, as we've done on occasion, we'll be launching a bit of a side trip.
You'll see our focus as our focus forms. At least for a while, our utterly futile standard fare will be relegated to afternoon-only status.
For today, we'll help you see the sheer futility of anything like "press criticism." We start by telling you this:
Vast amounts of what you read and hear are basically Storyline. You're offered mythology, fable, memorized cant—Standardized Standard Press Script.
You're offered Storyline, all the way down. So it was when Woodward and Bernstein fronted the Outlook section of yesterday's Washington Post.
Their essay consumed the top eighty percent of Outlook's first page. Inside the high-profile weekly section, their essay consumed two more full pages—pages B2 and B3.
Woodward and Bernstein are extremely famous. In their essay, they draw amateur psychiatric comparisons between two United States presidents—Presidents Nixon and Trump.
Along the way, they describe one of the ways Nixon achieved re-election in 1972. More precisely, they return to the very familiar standardized tale of the time Muskie Wept.
They tell you the tale for the ten millionth time. What they offer in this passage is one more example, fifty years later, of Standardized Standard Press Myth:
WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN (6/5/22): The heart of Nixon’s criminality was his successful subversion of the electoral process—the most fundamental element of American democracy. He accomplished it through a massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and disinformation that enabled him to literally determine who his opponent would be in the presidential election of 1972.
With a covert budget of just $250,000, a team of undercover Nixon operatives derailed the presidential campaign of Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the Democrats’ most electable candidate.
Nixon then ran against Sen. George McGovern, a South Dakota Democrat widely viewed as the much weaker candidate, and won in a historic landslide with 61 percent of the vote and carrying 49 states.
We greatly admired McGovern. That said, we remember the dispatching of Candidate Muskie with a great deal of chagrin.
In their essay for the Post, Woodward and Bernstein describe an extensive "dirty tricks" campaign conducted by the Nixon campaign against Candidate Muskie. It led to the vastly damaging incident described below.
It was a very big deal at the time. Warning! As presented by Woodward and, Bernstein, this seems to be a typical case of Standardized Standard Press Myth:
WOODWARD AND BERNSTEIN: Muskie and his staffers were spooked. At a rally in New Hampshire, standing on the back of a truck, the candidate expressed how upset he was by published slurs on his wife, Jane. A gossipy editorial published by conservative William Loebin the Manchester Union Leader, headlined “Big Daddy’s Jane,” had suggested that the senator’s wife drank, smoked and liked to tell dirty jokes. The story was also published in Newsweek. Around the same time, Muskie had appeared to condone the use of the word “Canuck,” a derogatory term for Canadians, in a forged letter drafted by a Nixon White House aide.
Under assault, Muskie openly cried at the New Hampshire campaign stop. David Broder, The Washington Post’s senior political reporter, wrote in a front-page story that Muskie broke down three times, “with tears streaming down his face.”
Drip by drip, all this added to the implosion of the Muskie candidacy.
Muskie's weeping was gigantic news at the time. It was David Broder's front-page "story" which drove this deeply damaging piece of myth.
Why do we say that Broder's front-page report really created a myth? We say that because of a remarkable admission Broder made fifteen years later.
For reasons which may seem fairly obvious, Broder's belated confession has been ignored—disappeared—ever since. Here's the start of that later admission, offered in a lengthy essay about the Muskie incident for the Washington Monthly:
BRODER (2/1/87): Within 24 hours, Muskie's weeping became the focus of political talk, not just in New Hampshire, but everywhere the pattern of the developing presidential race was discussed. His tears were generally described as one of the contributing causes of his disappointing showing in the March 7 primary. Muskie beat McGovern by a margin of 46 to 37 percent, but his managers had publicized their goal of winning at least 50 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic vote. Underdog McGovern claimed that the results showed Muskie's weakness and his own growing strength. Muskie never recovered from that Saturday in the snow.
In retrospect, though, there were a few problems with the Muskie story. First, it is unclear whether Muskie did cry.
Say what? In real time, on the front page of the Washington Post, Broder had written that Muskie had broken down repeatedly, "with tears streaming down his face."
Fifteen years later, a clarification! Fifteen years later, Broder wrote that it isn't clear whether Muskie cried it all!
In real time, the excitement about the way Muskie wept had driven Nixon's most credible challenger out of the White House race. Fifteen years later, in his astonishing essay, the dean of Washington journalists said it wasn't clear that Muskie had cried at all!
Broder described this minor point as one of the "problems" with his initial "story." Please don't make us say more.
You can read Broder's 1987 essay yourself. In our view, virtually every paragraph involves a confession of major journalistic misconduct—a confession of the type of misconduct in which major journalists novelize the news in line with their own preconceptions.
Perhaps for that reason, Broder's confession—indeed, his entire essay—has been wholly disappeared. In yesterday's Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein blew past the dean's confession.
Instead, they printed the legend. Over and over and over and over, that's how our "journalists" roll.
Just for the record, what might explain it? Why would Broder have written that Muskie wept if it isn't even clear whether he cried at all? Where did that colorful claim come from?
Thank you for asking that excellent question! Back in 2011, the Washington Post's Paul Waldman may have provided the answer.
To his credit, Waldman wrote an instructive essay about the utter silliness of the mainstream press corps' Gaffe Culture. Somewhat oddly, he included Muskie's weeping as a "gaffe."
Indeed, Waldman called Muskie's weeping "the most consequential presidential campaign gaffe of the modern era." In this astonishing passage, he tells the astonishing story of where the claim that Muskie wept may have come from:
WALDMAN (8/14/11): If you aren't old enough to remember it, you've probably heard the story of the most consequential presidential campaign gaffe of the modern era. In 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie responded to a series of attacks by the Manchester Union Leader with a news conference outside the paper's offices. Standing in the New Hampshire snow, the candidate for the Democratic nomination condemned the paper for, among other things, attacking his wife. The Washington Post's David Broder began his story about the incident this way: "With tears streaming down his face and his voice choked with emotion…"
Though Muskie insisted that his facial wetness came from the snow, the idea that a candidate would cry created a scandal. Muskie, thought until that moment to be his party's inevitable nominee, soon saw his campaign flounder and die.
The less well-known part of this story is that some influential journalists had decided long before that there was something slightly off about Muskie. In his 1977 book "Reporting: An Inside View," legendary journalist Lou Cannon wrote that, after playing poker with Muskie, he concluded that the senator was too temperamental to be president. "What does a political reporter do with this kind of insight?" Cannon asked. "As in this instance, it is rarely written as a hard news story the first time the thought arises…What we reporters tend to do is to store away in our minds such incidents and then use them to interpret—to set a context—for major incidents when they occur.”
We've long admired the bulk of Cannon's work, but Waldman's report is simply astounding. Here's what Waldman seems to have said:
Along the way, Cannon and some other major journalists had decided that the highly-regarded Muskie was too temperamental to be president. Pathetically, they had formed this impression based on Muskie's reactions during a poker game.
Quoting from Cannon's book, Waldman suggested that this preconception may explain the giant focus brought to bear on the claim that Muskie had "tears streaming down his face" that day—the claim that Muskie wept. People like Cannon had formed an impression, and they'd put that impression to use as they novelized this highly consequential tale.
Like everyone else, Waldman didn't mention Broder's subsequent admission that Muskie may not have cried that day at all. It may be that Waldman was unaware that Broder had made that statement. As noted, Broder's astounding confession was quickly disappeared.
Muskie wept, the journalists cried, and this reporting was vastly consequential. Other standardized myths widely prevail, including these standard groaners:
Nixon won the first debate among people who listened on the radio!
Clinton would have lost to Bush except for Ross Perot!
Al Gore said he invented the Internet (and three thousand other strange things)!
Michael Dukakis should have punched Bernie Shaw in the mouth!
Fifteen years later, Broder confessed. Yesterday, in the Washington Post, his confession remained disappeared.
All in all, the children never abandon their memorized tales. According to major experts, this is simply the game our brains are wired to play.
Tomorow: Back to the heights of Olympus