W. Joseph Campbell

‘Getting It Wrong’ goes ‘On Point’

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 3, 2010 at 8:52 pm

I was interviewed today by Tom Ashbrook, the engaging host of NPR’s On Point program, which is produced by WBUR in Boston.

We discussed Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, and it was a fine show. (Audio is available here.)

As Ashbrook promised in his introduction, the conversation ranged over a variety of topics–or what he called “iconic media tales from the Spanish-American War to Hurricane Katrina.”

We were joined by Jack Beatty, the program’s news analyst, and discussed at some length the myth of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, in which CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite characterized the war in Vietnam as a stalemate, supposedly prompting President Lyndon Johnson to alter his policy on the conflict.

We also took up myth surrounding the famous anecdote about William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century, the dubious notion that Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds set off nationwide panic and mass hysteria, and what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, in which Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post supposedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

On the latter topic, I mentioned how the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, has become the vehicle by which people learn about and remember the scandal.

Watergate was, I noted, “so complex that people these days, many years removed from it, find it hard to keep it all straight. … The high-quality, cinematic treatment of the Watergate scandal, featuring Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post in All the President’s Men, does happen to be the way that many people remember the Watergate scandal. …

“The movie’s a great movie,” I added. “But it helped to solidify the notion that the Post, the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein were at the center, were at the heart, of uncovering the scandal.”

On Point featured questions and comments from a few callers–including a guy named Phil in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who said about me:

“I think the professor has got too much time on his hands. ” I chuckled.

He added: “I lived through most of that–the Watergate and Vietnam War.  I think he’s underestimating the persuasive attitude that Walter Cronkite had on this country. … Everybody’s opinion turned on what Walter Cronkite thought.”

But another caller, Gary from Nashville, Tennessee, weighed in, saying he disagreed with Phil from Bowling Green, offered the thought that public opinion about Vietnam turned not on the views of one journalist but on “the unrelenting reporting on the war by the media.”

It was a lively, substantive program that has generated a few dozen or so comments at the On Point online site.

The discussion made me recognize anew how deeply embedded and tenaciously held some media-driven myths really are, and how an hour-long program is hardly enough to encourage people even to think about giving them up. As Jack Shafer noted in his review of Getting It Wrong, “a debunker’s work is never done.”

But perhaps the show’s content will entice some listeners to buy and read the book. Even then, though, I suspect some media myths will prove resistant to thorough debunking.



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