W. Joseph Campbell. Photo: Jeff Watts, American University

In this guest post, W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, shows how media-driven myths can take on lives of their own and persist even after being rejected by the people involved. On his blog yesterday, Campbell revealed the story behind Mark Twain’s famous quote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Media-driven myths are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity―false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual. A funny thing about media-driven myths is that some of them live on despite having been pooh-poohed by figures who were central to the story.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate offers a telling example of this peculiar feature of some media myths.

The Watergate myth―one of 10 that I debunk in my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong―maintains that the intrepid investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

“That Woodward and Bernstein exposed Nixon’s corruption is a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication,” I write in Getting It Wrong, noting how the tale has become “deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

But leading figures at the Washington Post have sought periodically over the years to dismiss the notion that their newspaper took down a president.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate years, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.” And Woodward has been quoted as saying, “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

As I note in Getting It Wrong, to roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Similarly, Walter Cronkite long dismissed claims that his televised report in February 1968 about the Vietnam War had a powerful influence on President Lyndon Johnson.

In an editorial comment at the close of that report, Cronkite said the war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations eventually might offer a way out for the United States.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s dire assessment, Johnson supposedly snapped off the television set and exclaimed: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or something to that effect. Versions vary.

The program and Johnson’s despairing response have become the stuff of legend―another media-driven myth. As I write in Getting It Wrong, the power of the anecdote “resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect Cronkite’s pronouncement supposedly had on the president.”

Interestingly, Cronkite scoffed at the suggestion his report on Vietnam had a great effect on Johnson. For years, he characterized the program in modest terms, writing in his 1997 memoir that the “mired in stalemate” assessment was for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

In promoting the book, Cronkite told the CNBC cable network that he doubted the program “had a huge significance” for the president. On another occasion, Cronkite said:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”
But in what may have been tacit acknowledgement of the appeal of media-driven myths, Cronkite late in his life came to embrace the view that the program on Vietnam was a significant moment. For example, he told Esquire magazine in 2006, about three years before his death:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

However, as is discussed in Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, making an appearance at the 51st birthday of a longtime political ally, Governor John Connally.

“Today you are 51, John,” the president said at about the time Cronkite was offering his “mired in stalemate” commentary. “That,” Johnson said, “is the magic number that every man of politics prays for―a simple majority.”

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.