W. Joseph Campbell

Myth appeal runs deep abroad; Watergate a case in point

In 1897, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on October 7, 2010 at 10:20 am

I  spoke about my new book, Getting It Wrong, at a superbly organized American University alumni event last night, at a venue commanding spectacular views of Seattle, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains.

Following my talk, which focused on three of the 10 media-driven myths debunked in Getting It Wrong, I was asked by one of the people in attendance whether myths have similarly emerged about the media in other countries.

A very good question, I replied: I really don’t think so.

Maybe in Britain, I suggested, given the robust media scene there. But I couldn’t say for sure.

While I had to hedge a bit on the question, there’s no doubt that myth appeal runs deep from the United States to other countries. That is, news organizations outside the United States not infrequently repeat what are American media myths.

Media-driven myths, I have noted, can and do travel far, and well.  Take, for example, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

The notion is often embraced in news media in the United States and overseas that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then-young reporters for the Washington Post, took down Richard Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

A measure of the myth’s international appeal can found in a report that aired today on Australia’s ABC radio network, which described Woodward as “one of the Washington Post journalists who brought down a U.S. President.”

Not even Woodward embraces that claim. He said in an interview in 2005:

“To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

And he’s right. Earthy, perhaps, but right.

I discuss the heroic-journalist myth in Getting It Wrong, noting that it’s a simplistic and misleading interpretation of what was a sprawling and complex scandal. Watergate’s web of misconduct forced Nixon from office and landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

To roll up a scandal of such dimension, I write,  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 that tableau, journalism’s contributions to unraveling Watergate were modest—certainly not decisive.

But because the heroic-journalist interpretation is such an unambiguous assertion of the media’s presumed power, it tends to travel well.

The same holds for the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.

Hearst supposedly made the pledge in a cable to the artist Frederic Remington, who was in Cuba in early 1897, on assignment for Hearst’s New York Journal to draw illustrations of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule.

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 Hearst denied ever having made such statement.

It is, however, a tale almost too good to be disbelieved, given that it so effectively represents Hearst as warmonger. The tale’s sheer deliciousness is another reason why the anecdote turns up more than infrequently in news outlets abroad, especially in Spanish-language media.

The media myths associated with Watergate, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938 were the principal elements of my talk last night.

Those myths live on, I said, in part because “they are appealing reductive, in that they minimize the complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. The Washington Post no more brought down Nixon that Walter Cronkite swayed [Lyndon] Johnson’s views about Vietnam.

“Yet those and other media myths endure because they present unambiguous, easy-to-remember explanations for complex historic events.”


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