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.
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.
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. …”
Media myths, as we know from W. Joseph Campbell’s guest posts and his book, Getting it Wrong, are embedded in American journalism. In this guest post, Campbell shows how setting the record straight puts media power and influence in perspective.
Last week, Campbell discussed several media-driven myths in an interview on Cleveland’s Lanigan and Malone radio show. Listen to the interview and read the highlights on Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert.
The tales debunked in Getting It Wrong often ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners. The book dismantles the legend of Edward R. Murrow’s crushing the menace of McCarthyism, of Walter Cronkite‘s effectively ending a faraway and unpopular war, and of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s toppling Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
“These purported achievements,” I write, “are compelling and exert an enduring allure; to expose them as exaggerated or untrue is to take aim at the self-importance of American journalism.” I further write: “To identify these tales as media myths is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and many others, assume them to be.”
Indeed, it is quite rare for any news report to trigger a powerful, immediate, and decisive reaction akin to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported woe-is-me response to Cronkite’s televised assessment about Vietnam in 1968: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Or words to that effect.) Researchers long ago dismissed the notion that the news media can create profound and immediate effects, as if absorbing media messages were akin to receiving potent drugs via a hypodermic needle.
Debunking media-driven myths thus enhances the case for modest or limited media effects. Getting It Wrong points out that “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.” Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist who writes on economics issues for Newsweek and the Washington Post, has described this fallacy notably well.
“Because the media are everywhere—and inspire much resentment—their influence is routinely exaggerated,” Samuelson wrote in the Post in 2003. “The mistake is in confusing visibility with power, and the media are often complicit in the confusion. We [in the news media] embrace the mythology, because it flatters our self-importance.”
What’s more, the news media nowadays are too diverse and too splintered—into print, broadcast, cable, satellite, and online options—to exert much collective or sustained influence on policymakers and broader audiences. And as Herbert Gans, a sociologist who has written widely about the news media, has noted:
“If news audiences had to respond to all the news to which they are exposed, they would not have time to live their own lives. In fact, people screen out many things, including news, that could interfere with their own lives.”
That’s for sure. Large numbers of Americans ignore the news altogether: They are beyond media influence in any case. Nearly 20 percent of American adults go newsless on a typical day, according to a study conducted in 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The newsless option is particularly striking among young adults, 18-to-24-years-old. Thirty-four percent of that cohort goes newsless, according to Pew Research. (That proportion represents a substantial increase from 1998 when 25 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old cohort shunned the news.)
Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. And overstated. Debunking media-driven myths, then, helps place media influence in a more precise, more coherent context.
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 at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C. He frequently blogs about media-driven myths at MediaMythAlert.
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.
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 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.
From William Randolph Hearst’s supposed promise to “furnish the war” with Spain and the alleged hysteria caused by Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast to news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, many often-repeated media tales crumble under closer scrutiny. Campbell points out how factors like anecdote-driven reporting, an inflated belief in the power of media, and an appealing story can fuel a media myth, and why it’s important to “get it right”.
“From Revolutionary War icon Betsy Ross to World War II’s Rosie the Riveter, from sexually liberated 1920s femme fatale Louise Brooks to bra-burning feminists in the 1960s, from anti-slavery orator Sojourner Truth to controversial civil rights activist Angela Davis, American history is filled with female archetypes who pushed against the barriers of repression and social convention.”
True enough: History indeed counts many “female archetypes who pushed against the barriers of repression and social convention.”
But as for those “bra-burning feminists in the 1960s”–just who were they?
The commentary doesn’t say, leaving an implication that bra-burning was widespread, and even commonplace, during the 1960s.
In that chapter, I trace the diffusion of the “bra-burning” epithet to the aftermath of the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City, N.J., on September 7, 1968.
That afternoon, about 100 women gathered on the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the pageant as degrading to women.
A highlight of the afternoon came when demonstrators tossed into a barrel what they called “instruments of torture,” including brassieres, girdles, high-heeled shoes, and such magazines as Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The protesters dubbed the barrel the Freedom Trash Can.
The protest organizers, who included the feminist and former child actor Robin Morgan, have long insisted that the bras and other contents of the Freedom Trash Can were not set afire during the protest.
But the notion that bras had been set ablaze in flamboyant protest became a misleading legacy of that long-ago afternoon–an image promoted and spread by columnists Harriett Van Horne and Art Buchwald.
Neither of them was at the protest.
Two days afterward, Van Horne wrote in her column that there had been a bonfire in a Freedom Trash Can.
“With screams of delight,” she said of the protesters, “they consigned to the flames such shackling, demeaning items as girdles, bras, high-heeled slippers, hair curlers and false eyelashes.”
As I write in Getting It Wrong, this highly imaginative characterization was taken up a few days later by Art Buchwald in his nationally syndicated column.
Buchwald, who by then was American journalism’s leading humor columnist, wrote with tongue in cheek that he had been “flabbergasted to read that about 100 women had picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City against ‘ludicrous beauty standards that had enslaved the American woman.’”
He also wrote:
“The final and most tragic part of the protest took place when several of the women publicly burned their brassieres.”
And he closed the column by writing:
“If the women in Atlantic City wanted to picket the Miss America beauty pageant because it is lily-white, that is one thing, and if they wanted to picket because it is a bore, that is also a legitimate excuse. But when they start asking young American women to burn their brassieres and throw away their false eyelashes, then we say dissent in this country has gone too far.”
In this cross-post from his Media Myth Alert blog, W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, addresses how the media fueled fears of a “crack baby generation”, and the damaging consequences of this media-driven myth.
Skirting the media’s role in the ‘crack baby’ scare by W. Joseph Campbell
The Washington Post today revisits the “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s and reports that “in the two decades that have passed since … these babies have grown into young adults who can tell their stories–and for the most part, they are tales of success.”
The Post notes that “a lot of misinformation surfaced” about the “crack baby” phenomenon, and cites an often-quoted column by Charles Krauthammer who in 1989 wrote:
“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”
(Although the Post article doesn’t mention it, Krauthammer also wrote in that column: “The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.”)
Otherwise, the Post’s report steered well clear of considering the news media’s central role in spreading “misinformation” about “crack babies,” a topic is explored in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.
The scare, I write, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.'”
I further note:
“To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free, and certainly neither prudent nor sensible.”
However, I add, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping: Newborns exposed to crack during pregnancy tend to be smaller in birth weight, in length, and in head circumference. Some research suggested that mild cognitive deficiencies, such as difficulties in concentrating on tasks at hand, might be attributable to prenatal cocaine exposure, especially as cognitive demands on children intensify as they grow older.
“But biomedical research has found nothing akin to a ‘bio-underclass,'” that Krauthammer and others warned about some 20 years ago.
Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I write in Getting It Wrong, because doing so “allows insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research, and to reach for certainty and definitiveness that are not often found in preliminary findings.
“The tendency of journalists to push hard on tentative data has been apparent in coverage of more recent drug scares, notably that of methamphetamine in 2004 and 2005.”
The Post’s report today was the latest in what, in effect, has been an intermittent series in leading newspapers to revisit the “crack baby” scare and find it to have been exaggerated.
In a lengthy article published 15 months ago, the New York Times called the scare “the epidemic that wasn’t.” A columnist for the New York Daily News acknowledged in 2004 that “we probably overreacted with forecasts of harm to so-called ‘crack babies.'”
And more than 12 years ago, the Post carried a story similar to today’s. That article appeared on page Z10, beneath the headline: “‘Crack Baby’ Fears May Have Been Overstated.”
As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The news media’s retreat or rollback on crack babies was neither as extensive nor as prominent as the dramatic and ominous reports about the scourge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
I quote the alternative magazine, Mother Jones, which pointed out in 1995:
“The publicity blitz that spread the crack-baby myth has not been matched by an attempt to unmake the myth—and many, many people still believe in it.”
The term “crack babies” remains firmly in circulation; it is invoked casually and idiomatically, as something of a cliche.
The most famous anecdote in American journalism may be William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow, telegraphed to the artist Frederic Remington in Cuba, to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.
Or it may be Edward R. Murrow’s television program on CBS in 1954, which supposedly brought an end to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.
Or it may be the interpretation of Watergate that says The Washington Post’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
All three are well-known stories about the exercise of media power, for good or bad. All three anecdotes are often retold.
What are media-driven myths? W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, calls them the “junk food of journalism”—tempting but dubious tidbits that distort the facts and perpetuate erroneous information through news and popular media. In a recent cross-post from his blog Media Myth Alert, Campbell addressed the appealing but misleading story that Edward R. Murrow was the first to publicly denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy. Here, he wonders whether another famous quote attributed to Murrow may be a media myth. This entry is cross-posted from W. Joseph Campbell’s blog Media Myth Alert.
Edward R. Murrow’s bravery in taking on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in a televised report in 1954 is the stuff of legend—and of media-driven myth.
The notion that Murrow’s half-hour CBS program halted McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch hunt is one of 10 media-driven myths addressed, and debunked, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong.
The courage Murrow supposedly showed back then was invoked yesterday in a commentary at the Huffington Post blog. The commentary deplored the decline of civility in American political life and declared:
“One of the most courageous heroes steering Americans back to sanity during the McCarthy period, Edward R. Murrow, commented: ‘We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.'”
Besides the reference to Murrow as hero, I was struck by the quotation’s second sentence:
“When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”
I wondered: Did Murrow really say that?
The first portion of the quote–”We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty”–is quite familiar. Murrow intoned the passage during his 1954 program on McCarthy, in a closing editorial comment.
But the rest of quotation– “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it”–was not uttered during Murrow’s program on McCarthy.
I ran that passage through the “historical newspapers” database, which includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times. No articles quoting the passage were returned.
A search of the LexisNexis database produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001. And none stated when and where Murrow made the comment.
Among the LexisNexis returns was a book review published in 2003 in the Washington Post. The review invoked the “loyal opposition” passage and said Murrow made the remark “half a century ago, at the height of the McCarthy era.” But exactly when and where was left unsaid.
Harry Reid, now the U.S. Senate majority leader, invoked the passage, and cited Murrow as its author, in a speech in 2006 about Iraq. But Reid didn’t say when and where Murrow supposedly made the comment.
Otherwise, the articles, statements, and letters to the editor retrieved from LexisNexis offered no details about the quotation’s derivation.
A Google search produced links to nearly 9,000 online sites that cite the passage. A check of several of those sites turned up nothing about the quote’s derivation.
Google Books identifies seven books that contain the verbatim passage, none of which was published before 2003. None of the seven books is a biography about Murrow.
I could be wrong, but the passage strikes me as dubious, as a flexible, handy, all-purpose comment useful in scoring points by the political left as well as the right.
If it were genuine, if Murrow really said it, its derivation wouldn’t be difficult to track down.
Moreover, the quotation seems almost too neat and tidy to be authentic.