W. Joseph Campbell

One paragraph, three myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

A column posted today at a Canadian online news site achieved the feat of working three media-driven myths into a single paragraph.

Here’s what the columnist wrote, in a paean to the power and influence that traditional news media once wielded, supposedly:

“A Walter Cronkite could, however belatedly, expose the pointlessness of Vietnam. Famously, Edward R. Murrow deflated McCarthy. A pair of scruffy reporters could bring down a Nixon.”

Three sentences, three myths–a trifecta that is very rare.

All three media-driven myths are addressed, and debunked, in my book, Getting It Wrong, to be published in summer by the University of California Press.

The reference to Cronkite is to the CBS anchorman’s report of February 27, 1968, in which he said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam. As I write in Getting It Wrong, such a characterization was scarcely original or exceptional at the time. It was no exposé.

Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s pronouncement, the New York Times had suggested in a front-page report that the war was stalemated.

Victory in Vietnam, the Times report said, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

That Murrow “deflated” Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is another media myth, stemming from Murrow’s See It Now television program of March 9, 1954.

Murrow in fact was quite belated in confronting McCarthy and the senator’s communists-in-government witch hunt.

The half-hour See It Now program on McCarthy came many months–even years–after other journalists had pointedly challenged the senator and his bullying tactics. Eric Sevareid, a friend and CBS colleague of Murrow, pointedly noted that Murrow’s program “came very late in the day.”

In an interview in 1978, Sevareid said: “The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

And by the time Murrow’s report aired, McCarthy’s favorable ratings had been in decline for three months, as also I note in Getting It Wrong.

The Canadian columnist’s reference to “a pair of scruffy reporters” who supposedly brought down Richard Nixon is, of course, to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who covered the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post.

As I’ve noted in previous posts at MediaMythAlert, the notion that the reporters brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency is a myth that even the Post has tried to dismiss.

Howard Kurtz, the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005, for example:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”

Kurtz’s observations parallel those of Stanley I. Kutler, a leading historian of the  Watergate scandal, who has written:

“The fact is, an incredible array of powerful actors all converged on Nixon at once—the FBI, prosecutors, congressional investigators, the judicial system.”

The three myths are stories well-known and even cherished in American journalism. They almost always are cited as examples of media power and influence, of journalists at their courageous best.

But as I write in Getting It Wrong:

“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.”


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