Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism

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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.

Continue reading “Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News”


For the Last Time, the Washington Post Did Not Bring Down Nixon

In his latest blog post, W. Joseph Campbell undertakes the Sisyphean task of discrediting yet another media myth: the notion that the Washington Post was vital to the outcome of Watergate. This widely held belief “is the stuff of legend,” Campbell says. Read on for the full scoop on what really brought down Nixon. Maybe this time the truth will stick.

Getting It Wrong coverThe Wall Street Journal blog “India Real Time” indulged yesterday in the conventional but mistaken narrative of the Watergate scandal, declaring that the Washington Postplayed a pivotal role in effectively bringing down then U.S. President Richard Nixon.”

Effectively brought down Nixon, eh?

Not even the Post buys into that misreading of Watergate history.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, dismissed that interpretation, declaring in 1997:

“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.”

Similarly, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, has asserted:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Such comments aren’t the manifestation of false modesty. Far from it. Rather, they represent candid observations about the peripheral role the Post played in uncovering the scandal that brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Read the full post on Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert.


The Truth About Halloween 1938

Halloween conjures up memories of one of the spookiest events in broadcast history: Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, which aired on Halloween eve in 1938. “No single program in American broadcasting has inspired more fear, controversy, and endless fascination,” writes W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism.

In the video below, Campbell explains that the narrative that listeners by the tens, or even hundreds of thousands were gripped by mass panic, believing the Earth was under Martian attack, was largely a misrepresentation by the media. Campbell further describes his research and the motivations behind this media-driven myth in an interview with Big Think, noting that “[f]or newspapers, Welles’ radio spoof offered an irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy, and immature medium.”


A Myth of Mass Hysteria

Welles and 'War of the Worlds'
Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

In his latest blog post, W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, discusses a media myth “too well-known, too entrenched in the American consciousness, ever to fall into disuse.” How could such an unsubstantiated belief take hold? Campbell explains below:


“October always brings frequent reminders about radio’s most memorable and myth-beclouded program–Orson Welles’ superb dramatization of the War of the Worlds that aired on Halloween eve 1938.

So realistic was Welles’ show, so alarming were its simulated news reports of invading Martians, that listeners by the tens of thousands—or more—were convulsed in panic and hysteria.

Fright beyond measure gripped the country that night; it was the night that panicked America. …”

Read the full post on Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert.


Getting it Wrong: New Podcast with W. Joseph Campbell

photo of W. Joseph CampbellW. Joseph Campbell takes the media down a peg in the latest UC Press podcast. Campbell, whose book Getting it Wrong addresses ten widely held myths perpetuated by the news media, says these stories undercut the idea that American journalism is a truth-seeking endeavor.

Campbell is particularly skeptical about the myth of superlative reporting that journalists tell themselves about Hurricane Katrina. The notion that media outlets, by and large, stood up to negligent government authorities and called out their lapses in delivering aid is not only self-congratulatory, he argues, but overlooks the dramatically flawed reporting that took place after the event—wildly exaggerated tales of anarchy, mayhem, nightmarish violence and other dystopian scenarios.

To hear Campbell’s take on Katrina, and on current stories that are becoming media-driven myths, listen to the podcast:  


Nixon Quits – 36 Years On

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, and he frequently blogs about media-driven myths at Media Myth Alert.  Read is latest blog post below or at mediamythalert.wordpress.com.

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Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 36 years ago today–the only American president to have done so.

He left the White House on August 9, 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction. By then it had become clear that Nixon had ordered senior aides to cover up the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic national headquarters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, forcing Nixon’s resignation “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.”

But in the years since 1974, the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal has become the heroic-journalist meme, the widely held notion that the investigative reporting of two young, tireless reporters for the Washington Post led the way in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Such claims appear often in the news media, both in the United States and abroad.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Indeed, 19 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972 went to jail for crimes in the Watergate scandal–a revealing marker of the scandal’s reach and complexity.

I write in Getting It Wrong that how “the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

So why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate become the dominant popular narrative?

Three related reasons offer themselves, I write in Getting It Wrong.

They are:

* the well-timed release in June 1974 of All the President’s Men, the best-selling book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting
* the cinematic version of the book, which was released in 1976 to very favorable reviews, and
* the decades-long guessing game about the identity of the helpful and anonymous high-level source, code-named “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward surreptitiously met while investigating Watergate. The secret source was introduced in All the President’s Men and immediately prompted considerable speculation as to who he was.

“These factors,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “combined to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness, and project the notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news media.”

This is especially so in the movie All the President’s Men, which, I write, “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

The movie also suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.

However, to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is, I note, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office”–the special Watergate prosecutors, the federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.

Even then, I argue, Nixon probably would have survived in office and served out his term–albeit as a wounded and weakened chief executive–had it not been for the existence of the audiotapes he made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court in late July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive element of the Watergate scandal—the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office.

And the tapes were decisive in ultimately forcing his resignation.

WJC


Media myths often travel well, crossing linguistic borders with ease

Media-driven myths can crop up around the world, undaunted by borders of language barriers. In this guest post, W. Joseph Campbell explores why certain myths know no bounds.

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, and he frequently blogs about media-driven myths at MediaMythAlert.
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Prominent media-driven myths―the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong—not only can be tenacious; some of them travel quite well, crossing linguistic and cultural borders with surprising ease. Indeed, it’s a emblem of hardy appeal when media-driven myths traverse linguistic boundaries more than just occasionally.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate—one of the 10 media myths I explore in Getting It Wrong―represents this phenomenon quite well. The heroic-journalist meme has it that the fearless investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both then-young journalists for the Washington Post, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

It’s a compelling tale that long ago became the scandal’s dominant narrative. It’s also a simplistic interpretation of what was a complex and intricate web of criminal conduct that not only took down Nixon but landed nearly 20 of his top aides and associates in jail.

I write in Getting It Wrong that to roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective, if not always the coordinated, efforts of special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered Nixon to surrender audiotapes that proved his complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Against such a tableau, journalism’s contributions to unraveling Watergate were modest—and certainly not decisive.

But because the heroic-journalist interpretation is so straightforward and unambiguous, it’s not surprising that it finds appeal across cultures and turns up fairly often in media reports outside the United States. Simplicity propels the Watergate myth, enabling it to travel far and well.

Just the other day, for example, a commentary posted at Mediapart, a French online investigative reporting site, recalled Woodward and Bernstein as “the two journalists for the Washington Post who, thanks to their investigation, set in motion the resignation of President Richard Nixon, during Watergate.”

Another media myth that travels widely and well is that of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Hearst’s pledge supposedly was contained in a cable to the artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to draw illustrations of the Cuban rebellion, which preceded the Spanish-American War.

The anecdote lives on as one of the most famous and delicious in American journalism—even though it is buttressed by no supporting documentation and is improbable on its face. It is, though, a tale almost too good not to be true. And it turns up periodically abroad, especially in Spanish-language media.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “Hearst’s famous vow to ‘furnish the war’ has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”
With all that going for it, the anecdote’s step to its adoption and use in international contexts is fairly small.

Beyond simplicity and sheer deliciousness, the international appeal of prominent media myths also may be attributed to a keen and enduring curiosity abroad in American journalism. For all its faults and uncertainties, American journalism is a sprawling, robust, and intriguing profession. That dynamism exerts appeal and interest beyond the United States.

American cinema is perhaps a more powerful force: Hollywood treatments have helped solidify media myths. And Hollywood productions often travel well abroad. The 1976 film All the President’s Men helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, for example. As I write in Getting It Wrong: “More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”

The movie, I note, “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

Hollywood also was crucial to cementing Hearst’s purported vow into the popular consciousness. That vehicle was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture based loosely on Hearst’s life and times. Hearst’s purported vow is paraphrased in a scene early in Kane, which some critics regard as the best-ever American motion picture.

The Hearstian vow also is quoted in the 1997 James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Or, as it was known in francophone countries, Demain ne meurt jamais.


Combating media myths: Are there antidotes to the junk food of journalism?

Media-driven myths are misleading and persistent, and can have damaging consequences, as W. Joseph Campbell writes in Getting it Wrong. Some have been around for more than 100 years, and more continue to emerge from misreported news stories and widely repeated anecdotes. But as Campbell shows in this guest post, while media myths are powerful, they are not invincible.
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W. Joseph Campbell

Media-driven myths—those false, dubious, yet prominent stories about the news media that masquerade as factual—can be considered to be the junk food of journalism. They’re alluring and delicious, but not especially wholesome or healthy.

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, media-driven myths can spring from many sources. War is an especially fertile breeding ground for media myths, partly because the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people. Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences often are in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield.

“The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

An example of that came early in the Iraq War in 2003, with the Washington Post’s erroneous report about the supposed battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, a topic discussed in Getting It Wrong. The Post’s characterization of Lynch as a female Rambo, pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, did not seem entirely implausible. It was, after all, a story picked up by news organizations throughout the world. Hurried and sloppy reporting, which certainly figured in the sensational report about Lynch, also contributes to the rise to media myths.

The myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s was certainly propelled by hurried reporting, by over-eager journalism and by premature medical findings. Reporters and columnists pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that many journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved quite wrong.

So are there any antidotes to media-driven myths?

I argue in Getting It Wrong that while “they spring from multiple sources, it is not as if media-driven myths are beyond being tamed.” To thwart or slow the spread of media myths, journalists might start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as William Randolph Hearst‘s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Turns of phrase that sound too neat and too tidy often are too good to be true.

Journalists also would do well to cultivate greater recognition of their fallibility. Too often they seem faintly concerned with correcting the record they tarnish. They tend not to much like revisiting major flaws and errors. As Jack Shafer, media critic for the online magazine Slate, has written: “The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact—proper spellings of last names, for example—than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Not surprisingly, there was no sustained effort by the news media to set straight the record about the chimerical scourge of “crack babies.” Not surprisingly, there was little sustained effort to explore and explain the distorted and badly flawed reporting from New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Encouraging a culture of skepticism and tolerance for viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms also would help curb the rise and dissemination of media-driven myths. Newsrooms can seem like bastions of group-think. Michael Kelly, the former editor of National Journal, once observed: “Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Group-think and viewpoint diversity are not topics often discussed in American newsrooms. But they’re hardly irrelevant. It is not inconceivable that a robust newsroom culture that embraces encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassingly mistaken tales such as the Post’s account about Jessica Lynch.

Another antidote to media-driven myths can be found in the digitization of newspapers and other media content. Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past. Never has journalism’s record been more readily accessible, through such databases as ProQuest and LexisNexis.

Reading what was written makes it clear that radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds in 1938 created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Edward R. Murrow’s televised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 was belated and quite unremarkable.

Reading what was written can be a straightforward and effective antidote to media-driven myths.

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. Getting It Wrong was launched this month in a program at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.