W. Joseph Campbell’s Top Mythbusting Posts of 2012

The author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, W. Joseph Campbell, has rounded up 2012’s most prominent media-driven myths and errors. Visit Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert, for the year’s five top writeups, the first of which is excerpted below:

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3)

The 40th anniversary of the famous “napalm girl” photograph — one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — fell in early June.

NapalmGirl photo_AP
Nick Ut/Associated Press

In an obituary a few weeks before, the New York Times had referred to the photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children and claimed, erroneously, that it showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the aerial napalm attack that gave rise to the photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. I pointed this out in an email to the Times, noting that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time had made clear.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied, and offered some baffling logic in doing so:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all relevant in the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted doing so until late August, when it issued a sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a begrudging and less-than-forthright acknowledgement of error. It hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller. He asserted in a column in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

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:  

Happy 42nd Anniversary!

As pointed out by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, today is the 42nd Anniversary of the women’s liberation protest September 7, 1968, on the Atlantic City boardwalk where the myth of bra-burning was born.

He writes in his own blog, Media Myth Alert, that “…bra-burning” is a media myth that has morphed and taken on fresh significance in the years since 1968. “Bra-burning” the epithet has lost some of its sting.

The legend of bra-burning began to take hold in the days and weeks following the women’s liberation protest September 7, 1968, on the Atlantic City boardwalk.

Some 100 demonstrators gathered there, as one participant put it, “to protest the degrading image of women perpetuated by the Miss America pageant,” which took place that night inside the city’s Convention Center.

A centerpiece of the protest was the so-called “Freedom Trash Can” into which demonstrators placed such “instruments of torture” as brassieres, girdles, and high-heeled shoes.

Organizers of the protest have long insisted that nothing was burned during the demonstration.”

But, as he points out in his post, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. It’s a really great read, do check it out.

The Junk Food of Journalism

W. Joseph Campbell recently appeared on C-SPAN to discuss his book, Getting it Wrong, in which he reveals how ten misreported news stories took hold and became media-driven myths — widely believed, but inaccurate stories by or about the news media. Campbell describes these tempting but insubstantial news tidbits as “the junk food of journalism”.

In the C-SPAN interview, he debunks ten of the greatest media-driven myths of all time, from William Randolph Hearst’s supposed vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, the “Cronkite moment”, and the Watergate hero-journalist myth, to the crack-baby scare, the story of Jessica Lynch, and news coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Watch W. Joseph Campbell on C-SPAN:

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.


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.


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.

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.

Puncturing media myths: What debunking them means

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.

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism addresses and punctures ten prominent media-driven myths—false, dubious, and improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

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.

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.

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.

Media myths and their self-sustaining quality: The case of Watergate

Media myths are not only persistent, but can spawn myths of their own, as W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, shows in this guest post, using the Watergate “heroic-journalist myth” as a case study.

W. Joseph Campbell at the Newseum. Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie
Debunking media myths at the Newseum. Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Prominent media-driven myths, the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong, can be a bit self-sustaining: They can and do give rise to subsidiary media myths. The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a fine example of this tendency. It has spun off a particularly tenacious, though appealing, subsidiary myth.

The heroic-journalist myth has it 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.

As I write 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. 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.” Except that it’s exaggerated.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation” of Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.” Those forces were typically subpoena-wielding and including federal prosecutors, the FBI, bipartisan Congressional committees, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end, the contributions of the Washington Post to the scandal’s outcome were modest, and certainly not decisive. Over the years, principals at the Post have emphasized as much. For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, 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 in Washington marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” she said.

In earthier terms, Woodward has concurred, telling American Journalism Review in 2004: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.” Nonetheless, the heroic-journalist myth lives on. It’s a robust myth, little-restrained in its reach and infiltration, and highly resistant to debunking. It is retold in textbooks, in classrooms, in newsrooms.

And it has spun off a durable subsidiary myth, one that revolves around the hoopla associated with Woodward and Bernstein: Their book about their reporting, All the President’s Men, was a best-seller. Its cinematic version was a box office success and is, quite likely, the most-viewed film ever about Watergate.

The book and the movie made journalism seem sexy, and caused enrollments at college and university journalism programs to soar. Supposedly. As I write in Getting It Wrong, “there is no evidence to support the notion that enrollments in journalism programs surged because of Woodward, Bernstein … and All the President’s Men. The subsidiary myth lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

A study financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 reported that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate scandal broke in 1972. McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

Despite such solid scholarly research, the subsidiary myth lives on. It’s a neat and tidy tale, the notion that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs. Like many other media myths, it’s a tale almost too good to be disbelieved.

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 last Saturday in a program at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.

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