by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism
The mainstream media’s recent angst and hand-wringing about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore that the media themselves have often been purveyors of bogus tales and dubious interpretations.
“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are documented in my book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently.
The book examines and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated. Think of them as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as a fact for years. Decades, even.
Take, for example, the often-told tale that television viewers and radio listeners had sharply different impressions about who won the first-ever televised debate in September 1960 between major party candidates. The media myth is that John F. Kennedy looked so cool and collected that TV audiences gave him the nod, but that Richard Nixon was the winner among radio listeners.
This legend of viewer-listener disagreement has circulated for years and is the topic of one of three new chapters in the second edition of Getting It Wrong. “Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation,” I write, “it is a robust trope that emerged within months of the first of four Kennedy-Nixon debates [in 1960] and is often invoked decades later as conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”
Viewer-listener disagreement is a dubious bit of political lore that’s frequently invoked by mainstream media, especially during national elections.
What little polling data exist about the debate’s radio listeners are simply too sparse, unstable, and imprecise to support any broad conclusions about their views of the debate winner. Moreover, the extensive coverage of the debate in major U.S. newspapers lends no support to the claim of viewer-listener disagreement, either.
Had dramatic and widespread differences characterized the reactions of TV and radio audiences, journalists in 1960 would have been well positioned to detect and report about such clashing perceptions — especially in the days immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter when curiosity about the debate, its novelty, and its consequences ran high.
But none of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in researching the chapter made specific reference to the listener-viewer disagreement. Leading American newspapers contained nothing in the debate’s immediate aftermath that suggested pervasive differences in how televisions viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate, I note.
The myth of viewer-listener disagreement appears to have originated in a passage in The Make of the President, 1960, an award-winning book about the campaign written by journalist Theodore White.
Getting It Wrong punctures other dubious tales, including the prominent myth about Watergate and the Washington Post — namely that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the scandal and brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974. This simplistic, easy-to-remember version of Watergate has become the scandal’s dominant narrative.
But clearly, that’s not how Watergate was uncovered. Unspooling the scandal was the work of subpoena-wielding agencies and committees, including special prosecutors, congressional committees, the FBI, and ultimately the Supreme Court.
Even then, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal if not for the secret audio tapes he had made of conversations at the White House. The tapes clearly revealed his guilty role in approving a cover-up of Watergate’s seminal crime — the burglary in June 1972 of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.
The tale lives on even though officials at the Post have periodically over the years pointedly rejected the notion. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said:
“Sometimes, people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
Graham was right. But the constitutional-processes interpretation of Watergate is far less dramatic, and far more complex, than the erroneous dominant narrative about two hungry journalists and their dogged reporting.