Did the Washington Post bring down Richard Nixon by reporting on the Watergate scandal? Did a cryptic remark by Walter Cronkite effectively end the Vietnam War? Did William Randolph Hearst vow to “furnish the war” in the 1898 conflict with Spain? In Getting It Wrong, W. Joseph Campbell addresses and dismantles these and other prominent media-driven myths—stories about or by the news media that are widely believed but which, on close examination, prove apocryphal. In a fascinating exploration of these and other cases—including the supposedly outstanding coverage of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina—Campbell describes how myths like these can feed stereotypes, deflect blame from policymakers, and overstate the power and influence of the news media.
FAQs about Getting It Wrong
Q: What's the book about?
A: Getting It Wrong addresses and debunks ten prominent media-driven myths.
Q: And what are media-driven myths?
A: They are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media-driven myths are dubious tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence. They can be thought of as the "junk food of journalism."
Q: Give me an example.
A: There are many media-driven myths. A quite well-known tale is that two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. It's a very appealing story, evoking David vs. Goliath and all. But it's a media myth.
Nixon's fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces—newspapers being among the least decisive. Journalism's contribution to Nixon's fall was modest at best. But it's far easier to focus on the exploits of the two heroic journalists than it is to grapple with the intricacies and baffling complexities of the Watergate scandal.
A similar dynamic helped propel the media myth of Edward R. Murrow's television program in 1954, which supposedly unmasked Senator Joseph McCarthy and ended his virulent, communists-in-government witch-hunt. Many factors combined to bring about McCarthy's downfall, not the least of which were his own excesses and miscalculations. But the notion that Murrow was the giant killer is very appealing, readily understood, often taught, and easy to remember.
Q: Why is it important to take time to debunk media-driven myths?
A: Because they aren't trivial. They aren't innocuous. Media-driven myths can and do have adverse consequences. They tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society. They often confer on the news media far more power and influence than they really possess. Media myths tend to minimize the complexity of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations. And media myths can deflect blame away from the makers and sponsors of flawed public policy.
Media myths can feed stereotypes, too. The highly exaggerated news reports of nightmarish violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina's landfall in 2005 essentially defamed the battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.
Media myths also invite indulgence in the "golden age fallacy"—a flawed but appealing belief that there really was a time when journalist were inspiring and respected heroic figures.
So media-driven myths can be deceiving and illusory. Trivial and innocuous they aren't.
Q: And where do media-driven myths come from?
A: They arise from many sources—including the tendency to believe the news media are very powerful and sometimes even dangerous forces in society. Media myths also are appealing because they offer simplistic answers to complex issues. Stories that are too good—too delicious—to be checked out also can become media myths. Those three factors—media power, simple answers to complex questions, and a sense of being too good not to be true—help explain the emergence and tenacity of one of the most famous media myths—the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to "furnish the war" with Spain. That anecdote is rich, telling, and delicious—and fits well with the image of Hearst as an unrestrained war-monger. But it's almost certainly apocryphal.
Sloppy reporting, and anecdote-driven reporting, can give rise to media myths, too. We see that in the myth of "crack babies" of the 1980s and 1990s—that children born to women who took cocaine during pregnancy were fated to become what journalists called a "bio underclass." Doing crack while pregnant is lunacy. But the much-feared social catastrophe, the "bio underclass," never materialized.
High-quality cinematic treatments can be powerful agents of media myth-making, too. Millions of Americans born after 1954 were introduced to the famous Murrow-McCarthy confrontation through Good Night, and Good Luck, a critically acclaimed motion picture released in 2005. Good Night, and Good Luck cleverly promoted the view that Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would or could.
Q: So this book really bashes the media, then?
A: Not really. The book's objective in taking on media-driven myths is not to assail the news media for past failings. The news media are scorned routinely enough as it is. Instead, Getting It Wrong aligns itself with a central objective of newsgathering—that of getting it right. It seeks to set straight the record by offering searching reappraisals about some of the best-known stories in American journalism. Some of these stories are quite self-flattering. So in some ways, Getting It Wrong punctures the journalism's self-importance.
Q: What fresh insights does the book offer?
A: There are many. The chapter in Getting It Wrong on the War of the Worlds radio dramatization calls attention to how second- and third-hand accounts spread rapidly as the broadcast unfolded and became significant and but little-recognized sources of fright that October night. A false-alarm contagion took hold in many places in the country, sowing fear and confusion among many people who had heard not a single word of the program.
The chapter about the myth of the New York Times' bowing to White House pressure and suppressing its reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 offers new evidence, too. The chapter demonstrates how President John F. Kennedy had almost no opportunity to call the Times and bring pressure to bear when a crucial news report about the pending invasion was edited and prepared for publication. There is simply no evidence Kennedy was in touch with the Times before that story was published.
List of Illustrations
Chapter One. "I'll Furnish the War": The Making of a Media Myth
Chapter Two. Fright beyond Measure? The Myth of The War of the Worlds
Chapter Three. Murrow vs. McCarthy: Timing Makes the Myth
Chapter Four. The Bay of Pigs–New York Times Suppression Myth
Chapter Five. Debunking the "Cronkite Moment"
Chapter Six. The Nuanced Myth: Bra Burning at Atlantic City
Chapter Seven. It's All about the Media: Watergate's Heroic-Journalist Myth
Chapter Eight. The "Fantasy Panic": The News Media and the Crack-Baby Myth
Chapter Nine. "She Was Fighting to the Death": Mythmaking in Iraq
Chapter Ten. Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Superlative Reporting
W. Joseph Campbell is Professor in the School of Communication at American University. He is the author of four other books, including Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies and The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.
“William Randolph Hearst never said, ‘You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.’ Orson Welles's ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast didn't panic America. Ed Murrow's ‘See It Now’ TV show didn't destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn't talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing ‘Oh, God help us’ and never fired a shot. These fables and more are lovingly undressed in W. Joseph Campbell's persuasive and entertaining ‘Getting It Wrong.’”—Edward Kosner Wall Street Journal
“The best tonic for the brain fever caused by media myths is an open mind and a free inquiry. I especially admire the disciplined way Campbell corrects so many flawed records without taking cheap shots at the perpetrators, channeling Jonathan Rauch's maxim, "It is the error we punish, not the errant." Of course when you do such a good job punishing the error, as Campbell does, you don't need to bother with the errant.”—Slate Magazine
"It may be the best book about journalism in recent memory; it is certainly the most subversive."—Andrew Ferguson Commentary Magazine
“Campbell's Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism is essential reading not just for journalists but all consumers of the news.”—Nick Gillespie Reason
“Written by a scholar who makes intricate facts clear, employing English, not Scholarspeak, Getting it Wrong is an eye-opener.”—Marie Shear Freelancer
“Exquisitely researched and lively.”—Denver Post
“This well-written and well-researched book will be of interest to historians, journalism scholars, and sociologists. Readers concerned about media influence should be relieved, while journalists could be discouraged to learn how little their efforts matter.”—Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib. Library Journal
"The value of these studies is . . . in the detailed and illuminating research Campbell has applied to each."—James Roylan Columbia Journalism Review
"On the wall at the fabled Chicago News Bureau there hung a banner proclaiming, 'IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.' Campbell has taken that ukase to heart. He’s carved out a niche as the guy who tracks down things everyone knows to be true and proves that everyone’s wrong. He is a dedicated debunker. He’s also the author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, a heavily documented—and persuasive—book."—Jack Limpert About Editing and Writing
“The epidemic of crack babies, accurate coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the mass hysteria created by the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" — they're all debunked by Campbell, who through meticulous research pieced together what really happened with all these stories we hold as shining examples of journalism's greatness.”—Roxana Hadadi Express
“Campbell manages to piece together fascinating new details about events of the past, and lays out a convincing case for how we often draw hasty conclusions about significant moments and make heroes and villains out of those who have little to do with their outcome. The myths he identifies are worth revisiting, and not just to set the record straight. Doing so offers important lessons on being discerning consumers of what we read and hear in the news.”—Bob Kustra Idaho Statesman
“A useful book . . . which among other things answers the question about the importance of debunking media-driven myths.”—The Morning News/Identity Theory
“A solid resource for those interested in journalism.”—R. A. Logan Choice
“If daily journalism constitutes history's first rough draft, then Getting it Wrong
certainly reveals how rough that draft can be. Campbell is a dogged and first-rate scholar.”—Neil Henry, Dean, University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
“Campbell has done meticulous research that examines ten media myths in context. This book rightfully calls us to rethink some significant errors that have become a part of our history and our collective memories. It is just downright interesting reading.”—Wallace B. Eberhard, recipient of the American Journalism Historians Association Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement
Sigma Delta Chi Award in Journalism, Society of Professional Journalists