Book Launch Recap: Getting it Wrong

This past Saturday, W. Joseph Campbell launched his book, Getting it Wrong, with a talk and book signing at the Newseum in Washington, DC. He brings us the highlights, and audience members’ thought-provoking questions, in this cross-post from his Media Myth Alert blog.
___________________________________________________________
Getting it Wrong Launched at Newseum

Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, was launched at a terrific program yesterday at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.

The Newseum’s John Maynard moderated a brisk “Inside Media” talk, during which I reviewed the myths of:

—William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain,
—Edward R. Murrow‘s 1954 See It Now television program that supposedly ended Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt,
— the so-called “Cronkite moment” of 1968,
—the heroic-journalist of Watergate, and
—the supposedly superlative reporting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina‘s landfall in 2005.

Signing books at the Newseum

The audience posed several intriguing questions about the book. Among them was whether I thought the media myths confronted in Getting It Wrong would now be forever buried.

It’s probably too soon to say, given the book’s recent publication. But I mentioned in my reply that I’ve been struck by how dearly some myths are held.

The myth of the “Cronkite moment” is an example, I said: It seems quite difficult for some people to believe that Walter Cronkite’s program on Vietnam in February 1968 was not of decisive effect.

The “Cronkite moment” may live on, and continue to be embraced, despite the weight of the evidence that Cronkite’s television report about Vietnam was of scant importance in revising policy or in shaping the president’s thinking about reelection.

A question was posed about how media myths emerge, and I noted that they arise from several sources, including an urge to identify examples of media power. Another factor is what I call “complexity-avoidance”–the appeal of simplified explanations for complex historical events.

It is, after all, far easier to believe that Hearst and his “yellow press” brought on the Spanish-American War in 1898, I said, than it is to grasp the complexities of the failed diplomacy among Spain, Cuba, and the United States that gave rise to that conflict. It is far easier to believe that the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency, I said, than it is to sort through tangled lines of investigation of the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced Nixon from office.

Even then, I said, Nixon may have served out his term if not for the tape-recordings he made of his private Oval Office conversations. Those tapes, which the U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon to produce in 1974, revealed his guilty role in the Watergate coverup.

I also was asked whether there are other media myths to bust. Indeed there are, I said. Getting It Wrong may deserve a sequel and suggested as candidates for a follow-on book the dubious phenomenon of “Pharm Parties” and the question of whether Cronkite really was “the most trusted man in America.

I signed copies of Getting It Wrong following the “Inside Media” program, and then toasted the book’s publication at a reception sponsored by the Newseum and American University’s School of Communication.

The School’s dean, Larry Kirkman, offered generous remarks in his toast at the reception, which was attended by AU colleagues, former students, past research assistants, and friends and family.

—W. Joseph Campbell