W. Joseph Campbell

In this guest post, W. Joseph Campbell challenges a longstanding myth surrounding the New York Times and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Campbell’s book, Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, will be launched June 19 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Debunking the Bay of Pigs ‘suppression myth’
by W. Joseph Campbell

In early April 1961, the New York Times bowed to pressure from the White House of President John F. Kennedy and “spiked,” or suppressed, its detailed report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

The Times’ purported self-censorship took place a little more than a week before the invasion, which failed utterly in its objective of toppling the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro.

The invasion force of CIA-trained Cuban exiles gave up in less than three days and the Kennedy presidency, as well as U.S. standing in the Caribbean and the world, suffered a humiliating setback.

Had the Times not censored itself, had the Times gone ahead and reported all that it knew, the ill-fated invasion may well have been scuttled and a national embarrassment avoided.

Or so the story goes.

The tale of the Times’ purported self-censorship has been recounted in many books, journals, newspapers, and other periodicals over the years. The episode offers supposedly timeless lessons about the perils of self-censorship, about the risks of yielding to pressure to withhold sensitive information on national security grounds, and about what can happen when the news media give in to power-wielding authorities.

The anecdote about the Times’ self-censorship is potent, compelling, delicious and timeless. And as I describe in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, it is also a media-driven myth.

The Times did not suppress its reports about the pending invasion of Cuba. It did not censor itself.  In fact, as is discussed in Getting It Wrong, the Times’ reports about preparations for the invasion were fairly detailed, not to mention prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the Bay of Pigs invasion was launched.

Given the widely held notion that the Times had censored itself, it was fairly surprising to find in my research just how much reporting there was in advance of the invasion. The run-up to the Bay of Pigs was no one-day story.
Not all of the pre-invasion reporting was accurate or on-target. Much of it was piecemeal. But there was ample coverage in the Times and other U.S. newspapers so that readers knew something was afoot in the Caribbean, that an assault on Castro was in the works.

The coverage supposedly reached a point where Kennedy told his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, a week before the invasion: “I can’t believe what I’m reading! Castro doesn’t need agents over here. All he has to do is read our papers. It’s all laid out for him.”

The notion that Kennedy asked or persuaded the Times to suppress, hold back, or dilute any of its reports about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion is utter fancy.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, there is no evidence that Kennedy or his administration knew in advance about the content of the Times’ reporting about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion. There is no evidence that Kennedy or anyone in his administration lobbied or persuaded the Times to hold back or spike that story, as is so often said.
So what accounts for what I call the “suppression myth”?

I write in Getting It Wrong that the myth “stems from confusion with a separate episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when Kennedy did ask the Times to postpone publication of a report about the Soviets having deployed nuclear-tipped weapons in Cuba. On that occasion, when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed to be in the balance, the Times complied.”

As for the significance of debunking the suppression  myth, I write:
“Exposing the myth demonstrates how the Kennedy administration sought to deflect blame for the Bay of Pigs and make a scapegoat of the Times. On separate occasions in 1961 and 1962, Kennedy told the senior executives of the Times that had the newspaper published more about the pending assault on Cuba, the invasion might have been scuttled.

“Such an interpretation of course shifts responsibility away from the authorities who possessed the power to order an invasion of a sovereign state,” I write. “Puncturing the Times-suppression myth, then, allows blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco to be more properly apportioned.”

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books.