Op-Ed: Whoops, They Did It Again
THIS STUFF ISN’T AMUSING ANYMORE
The mainstream media continues to fail us day after day (just ask Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who regularly reports stories establishment media won’t go near) – and here lately their reporting on the Kennedy family in particular has gone from bad to worse to positively abysmal.
If you’ve been reading this blog in recent weeks, you know we’ve been highly critical of the media’s hysterical coverage of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s illness, and the endless, pointless pontificating on Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about the RFK assassination.
We’ve also given `em hell (and rightfully so) when they failed to demonstrate a basic ability to spell and fact-check stories about the Kennedys prior to publication — and then for not printing corrections once the damage was done.
We’re not complaining about trivial little errors here. We’re talking whoppers, the kind of stuff that makes you scratch your head and wonder what qualifications one needs to become a journalist, or a copy editor, these days.
We’re not talking about small newspapers or independent bloggers making mistakes – oh, no – we’re talking about the biggest names in media: The New York Times, CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox News…you name it, they’ve mucked it up.
Most recently, we tore ABC News a new one for printing perhaps the most absurd wonder blunder we’ve ever seen – a story which asserts that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is, quite incredibly, the son of John F. Kennedy. (See related story, “ABC News Can’t Keep Their Kennedys Straight.”)
And we’re not just bitching about isolated errors popping up every once in a while. What we’ve witnessed over the past month alone in the media sphere of nonstop Kennedy coverage is an epidemic of poor research and reporting, combined with sloppy editing and irresponsible choices at the top levels of these newsroom hierarchies.
To run stories chock full of inaccuracies — when it’s so damned easy to catch and fix these massive screw-ups before they wind up embarrassing you (and your illustrious news organization) in print — is a transgression these great bastions of American journalism should have to answer for. But so far, no one is holding them accountable.
THE BOSTON GLOBE’S BIG BOO-BOO
Latest infuriating case in point: The Boston Globe’s May 11th review of Ted Sorensen’s new White House memoir, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.” (The book itself is a marvelous read, by the way. If you don’t have it, get it!)
The book review was penned by Douglas Brinkley, distinguished author, history professor and ”presidential historian.” Not that he doesn’t have the academic cred to back up that fancy pants title – he does – which leaves him absolutely no excuse for the colossal faux pas he committed in his recent Globe article. (Brinkley is a former director of the Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization and taught history at Tulane University before he was “relocated” to Texas by Hurricane Katrina. Now we have to contend with him.)
By far the most astonishing thing about this latest media mistake is that it appeared in the Boston Globe, for crying out loud, the Kennedy clan’s hometown newspaper.
To my mind, and to that of many Americans, no U.S. news publication should bear a greater responsibility than the Boston Globe for accurately reporting All Things Kennedy. Of course, we expect every news organization to do their homework, but the Globe has only to look in their vast archives of Kennedy coverage — or even out their own back door — to get the story straight.
This time, they didn’t even bother. Not only has the Globe damaged its’ credibility among readers in Boston and elsewhere (who do know better) with this foul-up, they have also done a disservice to history; to Theodore Sorensen, and to the memory of President Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy (left) and Ted Sorensen in the late 1950s. Sorensen began working for Kennedy as a research assistant in 1953. (PAUL SCHUTZER)
Upon reading the lede of the Globe’s book review, a smoking, flaming bomb of a boo-boo flies right up and smacks you in the face. (Hey, if you’re going to goof, do it big. And always make sure to put it in the first paragraph.)
Here’s the intro as originally published. How many of you can spot what’s wrong with this version of events?
When Ted Sorensen first heard the news on Nov. 22, 1963, that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, he fell into a state of zombie-like mourning. Struggling to control his emotions, he rushed to the Fish Room – the lounge across from the Oval Office – to watch CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite grimly report on the tragedy. Earlier that morning Sorensen had chatted with JFK near the White House helipad just before the president left for Dallas. Now, watching TV in a sullen trance, Sorensen doubted whether he would ever laugh again. The assassination had hit the 35-year-old special counsel harder than even his father’s death. “The news kept showing clips of the president delivering a speech earlier that day at a breakfast in Texas,” Sorensen recalled, “the same speech I had gone over with him in the Oval Office on the morning of his departure.”
Anyone who has ever done more than a cursory study of President Kennedy’s last day on earth know that he was not at the White House on the morning of November 22, 1963.
The President of the United States had been in Texas since the previous day on a goodwill tour, working to reunite warring factions of the state Democratic party and raising funds for the `64 campaign. Kennedy awoke that morning in Suite 850 of the Hotel Texas to a steady rain and 5,000 hardy souls standing in the parking lot beneath his window — all of them hoping for a smile; a word; a wave from their president.
Kennedy did brave the weather to address the crowd that morning, uttering that now-famous line: “There are no faint hearts in Ft. Worth!”
Apparently, the Boston Globe editors never heard this story, despite the fact that it is told in every printed account of Kennedy’s Final 24.
Don’t the copy editors up in Beantown at least have a copy of William Manchester’s JFK Assassination primer, The Death of a President, sitting on a reference shelf somewhere? All they had to do was hit the index.
Or maybe they could just read Ted Sorensen’s book. You know, the one they are reviewing here. Had anyone bothered to actually read it, there is no implication whatsoever from Sorensen that he spoke to Kennedy in person on Friday morning. As he describes that awful day in Counselor:
“The news kept showing clips of the president delivering a speech earlier that day at a breakfast in Texas,” Sorensen recalled, “the same speech I had gone over with him in the Oval Office on the morning of his departure.”
The morning of Kennedy’s departure was Thursday, November 21st, the previous day. I’d say that’s a rather important date to Mr. Sorensen. He remembers well the last time he saw the president – his dear friend – alive.
Nope, one doesn’t forget memories like that. But the Boston Globe does.
Have no doubt: photographic proof of the President’s whereabouts on the last morning of his life. JFK (with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Texas Governor John Connally behind him) addresses the crowd at Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas, November 22, 1963.
BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE
While your head may still be reeling from a goof like that ever making it into print, hang on to your helmet because here comes another one.
Following right on the heels of the first flub, the second paragraph goes on to say:
With a writing style as smooth as ice cream, Sorensen’s “Kennedy” focused on such Cold War flashpoints as Cuba, Laos, Berlin, and Oxford, Miss. It recounted the famous “Ask Not” inaugural address that Sorensen had so brilliantly written.
Oh, brother…do we have to go through that again?
Sorensen did not write JFK’s inaugural address. His role would be best described as that of collaborator (actually, there were several cooks in Kennedy’s literary kitchen whose suggestions made the finished draft). The record on this has been clarified time and time again by none other than Sorensen himself.
For example, in his 1969 book The Kennedy Legacy (guess the Globe editors never read that one, either), Sorensen states that “the final shape of every text was always the President’s decision alone.”
Furthermore, we know that oftentimes throughout their decade-long collaboration, Kennedy would frequently carry a Sorensen speech to the podium only to ignore most of it, delivering instead his own extemporaneous oration. Sorensen was probably the greatest presidential speechwriter of the 20th Century, but his greatest skill lay in channeling Kennedy’s intellect. He himself has admitted this, writing that “in the vast majority of cases” Kennedy did not follow the speech he had prepared.
Sorensen has always loyally affirmed Kennedy’s authorship of the inaugural address. In Kennedy (Sorensen’s 1965 book noted above in the Globe’s review, which no one at the Boston Globe apparently bothered to speed-read), he insists that “the principal architect of the Inaugural Address was John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
Could the man be any clearer than that? Then why does the mainstream media continue to get it wrong year after year, decade after decade?
Don’t Believe the Hype: one of JFK’s early drafts of the inaugural address, in his own practically illegible but nonetheless distinctive handwriting. Clearly a work in progress at this point, Kennedy is still toying with the language of “ask not what your country is going to do for you” instead of “can do for you.” (Larger images available for study at the National Archives’ website.)
FOR THE RECORD
If you might be tempted to think all this is much ado about nothing, think again. The issue of whether Kennedy composed his own inaugural address, or simply delivered Sorensen’s beautiful words, is not some arcane historical footnote. The speech is generally acknowledged to have been the greatest oration of any twentieth-century American politician. To deny the rightful author (JFK) full credit for it not only diminishes his legacy and weakens his claim on the hearts and minds of future generations, it also distances him, and us, from a speech that is a distillation of his experiences, philosophy, and character.
Erroneous assertions that Sorensen wrote JFK’s inaugural address have appeared frequently in the popular media through the years. In 1988, for example, Time magazine essayist Lance Morrow described Sorensen as “the author of so many of Kennedy’s speeches, including the inaugural.”
Even as late as 2002, PBS’s Great American Speeches series instructed U.S. schoolchildren everywhere that “John Kennedy’s inaugural address has been praised as one of the best public speeches ever…Kennedy, however, did not write the speech himself. Ted Sorensen did.”
None of these writers — including the illustrious Dr. Brinkley — offer any evidence that Sorensen wrote the Kennedy inaugural (but we offer clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; see image of Kennedy’s handwritten draft above). Instead, one detects the assumption that since speechwriters wrote the inaugural addresses of other presidents, one must have written Kennedy’s too, and that because Sorensen was the author of so many other Kennedy speeches, he must have been the author of this one as well.
But just because so many other media outlets made the same error before you is never an excuse to continue to perpetuate a falsehood, especially when there is clear documentary evidence to the contrary readily available. If a media outlet should do so knowingly, they might be well considered part of some elaborate conspiracy to undermine President Kennedy’s historical importance and intellectual abilities.
Now of course, we know the mainstream media has too much integrity to ever engage in such a thing, let alone an eminent historian like Douglas Brinkley, so therefore we must conclude that errors like these are not made out of any sense of spite or jealousy, but are rather the result of either laziness or ignorance.
That’s no comfort to me. How about you? What does it say about us as a society if our “best and brightest” historians and news editors are so ignorant of basic facts regarding any American president? And what kind of future historians, journalists and editors will we be sending into the workforce of the Fourth Estate in years to come? Isn’t that a scary thought?
Here’s an even scarier one: Douglas Brinkley is not only an esteemed “presidential historian,” he also is a Professor of History at Rice University in Houston. He’s a Senior Fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and was asked by former U.S. Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher to be part of a commission studying Presidential War Powers. Obviously, Professor Brinkley has friends in very high places, and is often called upon to “interpret” history for them.
And if that doesn’t sufficiently frighten you, he’s also the staff historian at CBS News.
PROFESSOR OF POP HISTORY 101
Now let’s throw another log of irony on this already-searing fire: Brinkley was once a friend of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s and a contributing editor at Kennedy’s George magazine. But in the days immediately following JFK Jr.’s 1999 fatal plane crash, Brinkley quickly became “the William Ginsberg of the Kennedy Death Circus” (so said Slate’s David Plotz), appearing on MSNBC, Late Edition, Meet the Press, Good Morning America, Dateline, Today (twice), and NPR (twice). He also penned columns about his relationship with Kennedy for Newsweek and the New York Times, and was quoted everywhere else ink touches paper.
According to the Washington Post, Brinkley cut a $10,000 deal with NBC for a week of exclusive Kennedy commentary after JFK Jr.’s death, but then agreed to provide it pro bono. Editors at George were reportedly so annoyed about Brinkley’s death punditry that they dropped him from the masthead.
But Brinkley somehow managed to work his way back into the family’s good graces after that, and over the next near-decade became known as some sort of Kennedy authority; the talking head to call for analysis whenever something happened in the Kennedy kingdom.
He even won the prestigious 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” a work which was highly praised by his fellow presidential historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger before his death.
Brinkley has been touted as one hip history professor, an historian for a new generation of Americans. He believes Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson are the giants of American literature. He quotes Ramones lyrics. He’s an idealist and a Democrat who by all accounts loves the Kennedys. So how could he make such glaring, easily avoidable mistakes in this Globe piece? What kind of reputable historian and “authority on the Kennedys” could let those elephants silp quietly by?
And why on earth didn’t the Boston Globe editors catch them before the story was allowed to be printed?
I’ll leave that question to our readers. I’m quite certain you will have a few thoughts to add on the swift deterioration of our intellectual and journalistic standards in America, of which this is just another shining example.
For those who actually do care about what our children and grandchildren will be taught as “history,” it’s enough to make you want to home school. And for those in the news profession who still care about accuracy, credibility and earning the people’s trust, it’s enough to make you want to go out and start your own media empire, dammit.
With the explosion of independent media and the blogosphere, these new contemporary documentarians often do a better job of reporting the news than their overpaid brethren over at World News Headquarters in New York, Washington D.C. or even Boston.
Perhaps fortunately for Brinkley, the Boston Globe did not open his book review to public comments, or they likely would have been besieged by a rein of rotten virtual tomatoes over the past two weeks. But you can still write a Letter to the Editor through their website if you’d like to let them know of your displeasure. We heartily encourage you to do so.
THE GOOD NEWS: WE STILL HAVE C-SPAN
If you’re looking for unfiltered coverage of news and events the mainstream media won’t touch (or perhaps because they screw up everything they touch) – such as important testimony before Congress, how your elected reps are voting, or the libertarian party convention, C-SPAN is the only place you’re going to get it.
And if the mainstream media’s butchering of the Kennedy legacy is starting to get tiresome; if you’re weary of all the nonstop, fawning punditry we’ve had to tolerate lately in the wake of Sen. Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis, Clinton’s “Assassingate,” and the 40th anniversary of RFK’s murder, you might want to keep an eye on C-SPAN over the next couple weeks. They will be broadcasting several programs to remember RFK’s legacy in a low-key, respectful manner.
The first of which we caught live last week; a special symposium and panel discussion on the 1968 campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Hosted at Washington D.C.’s Newseum, the program featured many of Kennedy’s closest surviving friends sharing their memories of him and was deeply moving to watch.
“To Seek a Newer World: A Symposium on the Life and Legacy of Robert F. Kennedy” was sponsored by the Freedom Forum, Vanderbilt University and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Kennedy’s widow Ethel and daughter Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend also attended the panel discussion, and were on hand to present the annual Robert F. Kennedy Book and Journalism Awards later that evening.
Former Kennedy associates John Doar, Peter Edelman, Frank Mankiewicz, John Nolan, John Seigenthaler, James E. Tolan, William Vanden Heuvel, and Charles McDew spoke at length about RFK’s 1968 campaign and the transformative effect his all-too-brief bid for the presidency had on America.
C-SPAN will most likely rebroadcast this program in the days ahead, so keep an eye out for that. You can also watch the video online for free once it has been added to the C-SPAN Archives website.
And just thank your lucky stars (or your cable/satellite provider) for C-SPAN. In the barren desert wasteland of cable news these days, C-SPAN is an oasis, the only network we have left which still serves the public interest, not corporate interests.
* Copyright RFKin2008.com. The opinions expressed in this editorial are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Kennedy family, or the owners of this website.